by Douglas Messier
The Friday launch of 36 OneWeb broadband satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome is officially canceled as the London-based company refused demands from the Russian government amid growing international tensions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The Board of OneWeb has voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur,” the company said in a one-sentence statement.
The Russian government had demanded that the British government divest its shares in OneWeb, and that the company provide assurances that the satellites would not be used for any military purposes. The UK government, which has imposed sanctions on Russia over the invasion, refused the demand.
OneWeb’s decision to suspend launches left the future of its 648-satellite broadband constellation in doubt. 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 has paid for six additional Soyuz launches, including the one planned for Friday, to complete deployment of the entire constellation.
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.
OneWeb has been marketing its services to military services. In November, the company and Intelsat revealed that they had demonstrated the constellation’s capabilities to representatives of the U.S. Army and Department of Defense.
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 if not impossible. The broadband 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 much 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.
The future seems bleak for Northrop Grumman’s Antares booster. The rocket’s first stage is built in Ukraine and is powered by two RD-181 engines manufactured in Russia. Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Roscosmos State Corporation that runs Russia’s space program, said the country would no longer be selling rocket engines to the United States.
Northrop Grumman officials have said the company has everything it needs to launch two more Cygnus resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). After that, the company would have to find other rides to orbit for its Cygnus freighter. ULA’s Atlas V rockets launched three Cyngus vehicles to the space station after Antares suffered a catastrophic explosion seconds after launch in October 2014.
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. Many foreign companies and governments would likely think twice about signing any launch contracts given what has happened with OneWeb launches.