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OneWeb abandons Russian launch

March 3, 2022

By Chris Forrester

London-based broadband satellite operator OneWeb has abandoned its planned Russian launch of 36 extra craft for its mega-constellation. The decision was taken at a OneWeb board meeting held in London.

The launch should have taken place from Baikonur in a Russian-controlled portion of Kazakhstan on March 4th. But Russian space agency Roscosmos had demanded that the UK withdraw its part-ownership of the project and to provide a guarantee that the satellites had no military purpose.

OneWeb pulled out its special staff located at Kazakhstan looking after the launch.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK business secretary, rejected the Russian request and on March 3rd said that the UK government supported OneWeb’s decision to pull out. He said the government was reviewing its “participation in all further projects involving Russian collaboration”.

However, the decision to pull out presents OneWeb with a number of problems. With the launch delayed or cancelled there will be legal consequences; Will Russia return the satellites to its (official) client which is Arianespace? Will Roscosmos return the pre-payment for the launch which under the current situation is probably difficult? Indeed, has Arianespace pre-paid for the remaining five launches it had booked with Russia on behalf of OneWeb?

Roscosmos has made life especially difficult for Arianespace and the French space agency CNES (Le site du Centre national d’études spatiales) at the French Guiana spaceport at Kourou as well as the European Space Agency. Roscosmos has withdrawn all of its technicians and engineers from Kourou and thus placing other scheduled launches in jeopardy.

But there’s more. Without access or technical help from Roscosmos then Arianespace might have extreme difficulty in launching future batches of OneWeb satellites from either of the Russian launch sites or Kourou itself. All were scheduled to make use of Russian-built Soyuz rockets.

As a worrying report from equity analysts at Exane/BNPP stated on March 3rd: “The launch manifest of Ariane is full for the next two years. The US forbids OneWeb to launch on a Chinese rocket. SpaceX has a busy launch manifest too with ongoing delays and it is questionable whether it would launch the satellites of the main competitor to its Starlink service let alone on competitive pricing. OneWeb is partly owned by Bharti Airtel and is likely to turn to the Indian space organisation (ISRO) for its upcoming launches. But ISRO has struggled with its launch cadence in recent years. In other words, we believe OneWeb is likely to face significant difficulties and delays in completing the deployment of its constellation. This could compromise the timing of the entry into service of the constellation planned for later this year. Eutelsat owns 23 per cent of OneWeb. Based on OneWeb’s current financial targets, we estimate this stake is worth €3.50 per share. SES mPower is due to launch on SpaceX from the US. Delays in the commercial roll out of OneWeb looks like a positive for SES’ O3b and mPower.”

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