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OneWeb reviews launch options

March 7, 2022

By Chris Forrester

Last week, following high-level discussions and a major dispute between Russia and the UK and Indian-backed OneWeb, OneWeb pulled out of its March 4th launch using a Russian rocket from Baikonur managed by Russia’s Roscosmos space agency.  The decision impacts not only this single launch of satellites but also a series of future – and essential – launches for OneWeb.

The move, and the inevitable problems of securing alternate launches, is a considerable set-back for OneWeb’s plans to create a near-global service later this year.

Russian technicians on March 4th removed the Soyuz from its launch pad in a live TV transmission and said its cargo of 36 OneWeb satellites has been taken to the assembly and testing facility at Baikonur for safekeeping.

Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin claimed in a TV interview that OneWeb was heading for bankruptcy and in typical Russian fashion blamed the launch cancellation on the US, UK, France and Germany.

To date, OneWeb has launched 428 satellites into orbit out of a planned need for 600 in order to fully cover most of the planet. OneWeb, via prime launch contractor Arianespace, had a contract in place to cover a total of 19 launches using Russian equipment including its Soyuz rockets.  Other than this cancelled event there were five further Soyuz launches planned for this year (and by August) plus an extra launch to place back-up satellites into orbit.

According to comments from Chris McLaughlin (OneWeb’s head of government/regulatory affairs), the broadband operator is looking at potential launches using US, Japanese and Indian rocket suppliers. It cannot use Chinese launches because of US regulations. However, McLaughlin added that in the first place, it was talking to Arianespace given that the launch provider owed it a number of launches.

Arianespace, in a statement on March 4th, stressed it was “strictly abiding by the sanctions decided by the international community (European Union, United States of America and United Kingdom) following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia,” and thus suspended all Soyuz launches. Arianespace said the OneWeb launch had been postponed indefinitely.

“As part of the mandate given by the ESA Member States to Arianespace, the operation of the Soyuz launcher from Europe’s Spaceport (CSG, French Guiana) and from Baikonur (Kazakhstan) through Starsem are governed by France/Russia inter-governmental agreement and ESA – Roscosmos space agencies agreement. This operation began after the end of the Soviet Union and has been very successful up to now. However, it is now challenged by Roscosmos’ unilateral decision to withdraw from CSG and suspend all Soyuz launches from Europe’s Spaceport. Readied Soyuz launchers and Galileo satellites are in stable configuration and in security,” added Arianespace.

Starsem is a joint-venture business owned by Arianespace and Roscosmos to operate the Soyuz rockets and commercialise their use by international clients.

OneWeb is backed by the UK but with the largest investor being India’s Bharti Global. Eutelsat, South Korea’s Hanwha and Japan’s SoftBank are also investors.

“The cancellation is a significant blow to the Russian space industry,” says William Davies, a defence analyst at GlobalData. “The economic damage and sanctions initiated by the invasion of Ukraine is likely to cripple the Russian space industry, and Roscosmos in particular. It will benefit players in the space industry based in the West, in particular SpaceX, which is now cementing its status in the market for space launch systems. SpaceX has worked with NASA since 2006, including transporting astronauts to the ISS in 2020. The company has already sought to plug the gap created by the launch systems previously fielded by Roscosmos, offering to supply materials to the ISS as necessary.”

Chris Quilty, senior analyst at Quilty Analytics and an acknowledged expert on the satellite industry, said the Russian move would inevitably be a set-back for OneWeb rather than “critical”. Quilty added that the best move would be for OneWeb to sign launch contracts with arch-competitor SpaceX. Quilty explained that with most launch providers working flat-out and wholesale cancellations of the Russian launch industry, it could be a year or more before OneWeb/Arianespace could find alternate launch providers.

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