by Douglas Messier
In what is likely the first hostage drama involving communication satellites, the head of the Russian space program has demanded that the British government divest its shares in OneWeb and that the broadband satellite operator not provide services to foreign militaries in order to launch a new batch of spacecraft. The move comes amid growing tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sanctions imposed on the country by western nations.
Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin tweeted that unless these demands are met, Russia will refuse to launch 36 OneWeb satellites that sit atop a Soyuz-2.1b rocket currently on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The launch is scheduled for Saturday morning Moscow time.
Rogozin further said that Roscosmos would keep the money that OneWeb paid for this Soyuz launch and five others scheduled for later this year from Baikonur that would complete deployment of the company’s 648 satellite constellation. To date, 13 Soyuz rockets have deployed 428 OneWeb spacecraft in launches from Baikonur, Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia, and Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.
OneWeb and the British government could have a very difficult time meeting the demands. The company has been marketing its services to military services. In November, OneWeb and Intelsat revealed that they had demonstrated the constellation’s capabilities to representatives of the U.S. Army and Department of Defense.
In 2020, the British government spent $500 million to help bail OneWeb out of bankruptcy. The government, which sees the constellation as a strategic asset, teamed with Indian billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal’s Bharti Global conglomerate, which invested $1 billion in the company at the same time.
(Update: New Scientist reports that the British government was surprised by the demands and is refusing to sell its shares. OneWeb says it’s primarily focused on the safety of personnel it has at Baikonur.)
Sanctions on banks, individuals and exports of high technology imposed by the United States, the European Union (EU) and Great Britain over the Ukraine invasion would make future Soyuz launches of OneWeb satellites difficult. The spacecraft are built in Florida. The launches are overseen by Arianespace of Europe and Starstem of Russia. OneWeb is headquartered in London.
Russia is pulling personnel who support Soyuz launches out of French Guiana in protest over the sanctions. The European Space Agency (ESA) has said it is “very unlikely” that the launch of the joint ExoMars mission will be conducted aboard a Russian Proton rocket in September due to the invasion and EU sanctions.
OneWeb plans to complete its satellite deployments are being derailed as rival SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is gaining increasing use around the world. Starlink is even playing a role in helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. In response to a plea from a government official, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk turned on the service over Ukraine and sent a shipment of antennas and receivers to the embattled nation.
OneWeb is also facing a global launch industry in transition to new boosters as providers struggle to meet the challenge posed by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers. Most of the world’s launch companies don’t have any spare capacity in the near future.
Europe is phasing out its Ariane 5 booster in favor of Ariane 6. The latter is scheduled to conduct its first flight test later this year.
In the United States, United Launch Alliance (ULA) is phasing out its Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy boosters in favor of Vulcan Centaur. The new rocket has been delayed by Blue Origin’s failure to deliver flight-ready BE-4 engines to power the first stage. ULA is hoping to launch Vulcan Centaur by the end of the year.
It’s unclear whether ULA could build more Atlas V boosters at this point. Even if it could, the rocket is powered by the Russian-made RD-180 engine which the company would have a difficult time obtaining given deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia.
Northrop Grumman’s Antares booster has an uncertain future due to likely supply disruptions. The rocket’s first stage is built in Ukraine and is powered by two RD-181 engines manufactured in Russia. The company has said it has everything it needs to launch two more Cygnus resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The booster’s future after that is uncertain.
SpaceX is likely not an option given that the company is in the midst of deploying its rival Starlink constellation. SpaceX could probably use the revenues given how much Starlink is costing the company, and the expense of developing its new Super Heavy and Starship rockets. However, OneWeb would likely not be comfortable trusting its future to a rival.
Japan has phased out the H-IIB rocket that it used to launch HTV resupply ships to ISS. The H-IIA rocket remains operational, but it is being phased out in favor of the H-3 booster. The new launch vehicle has experienced repeated delays.
Launching on Indian rockets could be an option if the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) boosters can place the remaining satellites into their intended orbits. The fact that OneWeb is co-owned by an Indian company is likely a plus.
However, ISRO has struggled to launch satellites since the global COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago. The space agency has attempted only five launches during that period, one of which failed and destroyed an Earth observation satellite. The nation had been launching around six times per year before the pandemic hit.
ISRO is likely backed up on launches. It’s also unclear whether the space agency could quickly ramp up booster production fast enough to meet OneWeb’s needs.
Meanwhile, Russia’s own actions might have ended the role of Soyuz-2 as a commercial launch vehicle. What foreign company or government would trust Roscosmos after seeing OneWeb’s satellites held hostage to these kinds of demands? Not many.