Satellites made by OneWeb, a firm part-owned by the UK government, are due to launch on a Russian Soyuz rocket on 4 March, but Russia is threatening to cancel while the UK has been criticised for going ahead following the invasion of Ukraine
2 March 2022
Russia and the UK are in a stand-off over a satellite launch. The satellites belong to the UK company OneWeb, which is part-owned by the UK government, and are due to launch on a Russian Soyuz rocket. The UK has been criticised for allowing the launch to go ahead, while Russia has said it won’t launch the satellites unless it receives guarantees they won’t be used for military purposes, and unless the UK government gives up its share in OneWeb.
On Friday 4 March at 10.41pm UK time, a batch of 36 OneWeb satellites is scheduled to lift off on a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is run by the Russian space agency Roscosmos. OneWeb already has more than 400 satellites in orbit, all launched on Soyuz rockets, as part of its space internet mega constellation. Five more launches are planned this year, also on Soyuz rockets, to complete the first stage of the constellation. The company was saved from bankruptcy in 2020 after a joint investment of $1 billion from the UK government and the Indian firm Bharti Global.
In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, questions have been raised as to whether the launch should go ahead. Other organisations have severed ties with Russia, such as energy firms BP and Shell. Earlier this week, the European Space Agency said it was “very unlikely” its upcoming Mars rover would launch on a Russian rocket as planned in September.
“Much like the ask of BP and Shell, OneWeb should not be continuing to engage in commercial activities with Russian companies,” said Labour MP Darren Jones, the chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in the UK House of Commons. “Ministers should be working with the OneWeb board to help secure this outcome as soon as possible.”
Chris Lee, former chief scientist at the UK Space Agency, said it was a “difficult situation” for OneWeb. “If they’re taking a business decision, I’m uncomfortable, unless they explain that to the UK taxpayer who was part of their bailout,” he said. “I would like them to explain their position, because to some extent we’re shareholders.”
So far, however, the launch appears to be going ahead. Roscosmos has been posting images on Twitter of the roll-out of the rocket, which is now vertical on the launch pad with the satellites on board. “We’re on schedule,” tweeted Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos.
However, speaking to the Russia-24 TV channel on 2 March, Rogozin also said the launch wouldn’t go ahead unless there were guarantees from OneWeb and the French company Arianespace, which organises the launches for OneWeb, that the satellites wouldn’t be used for military purposes. “If we do not receive confirmation before 4 March, the rocket will be removed from the launch,” he said. He added that the undisclosed sum of money paid by OneWeb for the launch, which had already been transferred in full, would “remain in Russia” regardless of the outcome. In a further escalation, Roscosmos tweeted that the launch will only go ahead if the UK government gives up its shares in OneWeb.
OneWeb has signed multiple military contracts previously, meaning Russia may be planning to stop the launch. “I’m not surprised if the comment is made in bad faith because OneWeb has long sought military and commercial clients,” says Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, UK. “Rogozin knows that.” It is unclear whether Russia plans to keep the satellites if the launch is cancelled.
In response to whether the launch should go ahead following global sanctions on Russia, a UK government spokesperson said: “It is right for questions to be raised about future space cooperation with Russia following the illegal invasion of Ukraine. We are monitoring the situation closely and engaging regularly with our partners, keeping next steps under review.” They didn’t respond to a request for comment on Rogozin’s latest ultimatum.
OneWeb didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. However, speaking to the website SpaceNews earlier this week, Chris McLaughlin, the firm’s chief of government, regulatory affairs and engagement, said that “so far it looks like we’re on – but who knows?”
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