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Russian launch decision upsets industry

March 15, 2022

UK-headquartered OneWeb is, with Arianespace, seeking a new satellite launch provider following Russia’s refusal to honour its contract to send around another 200 satellites into orbit.

OneWeb has 428 craft already in orbit but needs a total of 600 to fulfil its target services, plus another 30-50 standing by as back-ups in case of individual failures.

However, the Russian decision has reportedly left another dozen companies or services with plans in tatters and now without a clear path to orbit. The cancelled missions include several key scientific projects which were destined to use Russian launch facilities.

For example, the EU had plans for around six navigation, Earth observation and scientific satellites now looking for a new route to orbit. Most were due to launch from the French spaceport at Kourou but using Russian Soyuz rockets. Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has recalled its technicians based at Kourou.

Other important projects now looking for new launch providers include a couple of Galileo sat-nav satellites plus tasks for Sweden’s National Space Agency and a number of craft for Japan, amongst others.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that three well-established rocket and launch providers, Arianespace, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and United Launch Alliance’s are coming to the end of their current launch programmes. India has a suitable suite of rockets but not seen as a wholly dependable source in terms of launch frequencies. Chinese rockets cannot be used because of US trade restrictions.

This coming winter should see the situation start to improve, in particular from Arianespace but there’s little or no slack in anyone’s available timetables to fit in multiple launches.

The one exception to these problems is that of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceX has a very full manifest, in particular over the next 24-36 months, and few see OneWeb rushing to SpaceX which – by any measure – is a very real competitor to OneWeb thanks to its Starlink broadband service.

Smaller rocket providers are an alternate solution but they would not be able to carry loads of 30+ satellites. Each OneWeb craft weighs some 150 kgs. Quilty Analytics, in recent comments, says that this weight problem means four-to-six times as many launches to complete the OneWeb constellation should OneWeb/Arianespace choose smaller launch options.

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