Russian space agency refuses to launch OneWeb satellites

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Russian space agency Roscosmos has said that it won’t launch British OneWeb satellites, as was planned on Friday.

A Soyuz rocket carrying 36 of OneWeb’s satellites was due to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday. Following the global backlash against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that launch is now in question.

OneWeb is part-owned by the British government. With NATO put on high-alert following the invasion of a sovereign, democratic European country bordering several member states—Britain has taken a robust stance against Putin’s regime.

Roscosmos has made two demands for the launch to proceed in the future. The first is to seek “legally-binding” guarantees OneWeb’s satellites will not be used for military purposes.

Dmitry Rogozin, Head of Roscosmos, initially said that OneWeb has two days to provide the guarantees.

“If by 21:30 on March 4 we do not receive confirmation, the rocket will be removed from the launchpad and the satellites will be sent to the assembly and test building,” said Rogozin, in an interview with TV channel Russia 24.

However, in a tweet by Roscosmos, the space agency added the demand that the British government withdraws its stake in OneWeb:

Clearly, these demands cannot be met—certainly not in time for Friday

Russia has been hit with strong economic sanctions – including being kicked out from the SWIFT global payment system – that have effectively isolated the state.

Rogozin said that OneWeb paid for the launch in full and the funds won’t be returned.

“We received all the money for it for the manufacture of launch vehicles, upper-stages, and for the necessary launch services,” said Rogozin.

“This money, due to force majeure circumstances that have arisen as a result of the aggressive policy of the West and the sanctions that are applied against Russia, this money will remain in Russia.”

OneWeb currently has 428 satellites in orbit and had just a handful of launches remaining to complete its planned constellation of 648 satellites for truly global connectivity. All of those launches were scheduled to take place from Baikonur in the coming months.

Currently, OneWeb’s service is available to locations about 50 degrees North. Ukraine is not covered by the service but would be if the remaining satellites were to launch.

Yesterday, Telecoms reported that OneWeb rival Starlink had provided a batch of its stations to Ukraine to ensure that it maintains global connectivity as it defends itself.

Former UK Government advisor Dominic Cummings – widely regarded to have pushed for the acquisition of OneWeb – said the ability to offer services in response to situations like what’s happening in Ukraine was a factor in the decision:

The launch of OneWeb’s latest batch of satellites was due to take place at 22:41 GMT on Friday. With Russia now a pariah state, OneWeb – like many companies – will need to switch to alternative partners.

Update: As expected, UK Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has confirmed the British government will not be selling its stake in OneWeb:

Update 2: OneWeb’s board has voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur. The company will turn to its partner Arianespace for future launches to complete its constellation.

(Image Credits: Roscosmos, Baikonur Space Centre, TsENKI)

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