Russia's space isolation increases as OneWeb cancels launch

OneWeb, a satellite internet company partly owned by the British government, has canceled an upcoming satellite launch using a Russian r...


OneWeb, a satellite internet company partly owned by the British government, has canceled an upcoming satellite launch using a Russian rocket and suspended all future launches that depended on Russia, the company said on Thursday after a tense public confrontation with Roscosmos. , the Russian space agency.

Also on Thursday, Roscosmos announced that it would stop selling rocket engines to American companies.

The movements, the two spin-offs from Moscow invasion of ukraine, risk further isolating the Russian space agency from its Western space partners and significantly limiting Russia’s private space activities. OneWeb’s loss of a reliable rocket supplier for launches also poses new challenges for the company, as it aimed to complete its constellation of 648 satellites in orbit later this year.

OneWeb was saved from bankruptcy in 2020 by the UK government and other investors. It was scheduled to launch 36 satellites aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan on Friday. The company has sent about 400 satellites into orbit since 2019, each time using Soyuz, a high-performance rocket that has been active since the days of the Cold War space race.

But on Wednesday, just after the Soyuz deployed on the platform ahead of its launch, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s space chief, announced two conditions aimed at countering sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine: the space agency would not proceed with the satellite mission unless Britain withdraws its multi-billion dollar stake in OneWeb and the company provides a ‘guarantee that its satellites will not be used for military purposes’ .

Mr. Rogozin too posted a video on Twitter showing Roscosmos personnel on a platform next to the rocket covering the British, American and Japanese flags flying the exterior of the rocket. “The Baikonur launchers have decided that without the flags of certain countries, our rocket would be more beautiful,” said Mr. Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister who often makes explosive comments on social networks.

The space agency’s ultimatum came just three days before the previously scheduled launch, sparked emergency talks between British officials and OneWeb shareholders, who on Wednesday night decided to halt all future launches from Baikonur, the spaceport in Kazakhstan where Russia performs most of its launches. Mr Rogozin hinted on Twitter that OneWeb’s decision would send the company into yet another bankruptcy proceeding.

Chris McLaughlin, head of government affairs at OneWeb, dismissed the warning.

“This is an incredibly well-funded, debt-free company backed by powerful international shareholders who made the decision themselves,” he said in an interview.

Britain does not have its own capability to launch large payloads into orbit. Mr. McLaughlin said OneWeb would look to alternative launch vendors in Japan, India and the United States.

“We’re still keeping an eye on the launcher environment, but this is a totally new and unprecedented thing,” McLaughlin said.

The company was rescued from bankruptcy in 2020 by India’s Bharti Enterprises, OneWeb’s largest shareholder, and Britain, whose $500 million public investment in the satellite operator was aimed at boosting the British space economy. Without rockets to launch on, OneWeb’s goal of completing its mega-constellation faces severe disruption. It competes with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation to deliver high-speed internet to remote parts of the world.

OneWeb had previously come under pressure from British politicians to follow energy companies in cutting trade ties with Russia. The company had paid for its Russian launches wholesale through Arianespace, the French rocket company, and still had six missions remaining under the contract – a range of launches likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

In the coming days, OneWeb is set to enter negotiations with Arianespace to determine how, if possible, to recover the money for the suspended Soyuz missions, according to a OneWeb official who spoke on condition of anonymity. discuss sensitive business deliberations. he was not authorized to divulge. The official added that OneWeb executives do not know when or how the 36 satellites currently in Russia for Friday’s now-cancelled mission will exit the rocket, or where those satellites will be stored while OneWeb searches for an alternate launch vendor.

“There is no quick fix to this problem,” said Caleb Henry, satellite industry analyst at Quilty Analytics. “They have the money to find new launches, that’s just the huge downside of doing that.”

Mr. Henry added that launch contracts of this size are usually signed two years in advance.

“OneWeb had planned to complete its constellation by August, so that won’t be possible with a new launch provider,” he said.

Russia’s decision to hamper the business of one of its space agency’s biggest commercial clients was perhaps the starkest example so far of how the war in Ukraine is spilling over into the world. space, an area where the country has for decades found cooperation with countries that were once its Cold War adversaries.

Last week, Roscosmos withdrew more than 80 Russian personnel from French Guiana where the European Space Agency has its only launch site and is carrying out commercial Soyuz missions. Then the ESA said that a joint robotic mission to Mars by the agency and Russia, which is expected to launch later this year, is now “very unlikely” to proceed in time. And on Thursday, Roscosmos announced it would stop cooperating with Germany on joint space station research projects.

With the barrage of Western sanctions on the invasion, Roscosmos’ isolation from its Western partners seemed inevitable, said Victoria Samson, space policy analyst at the Secure World Foundation.

“It’s not encouraging that the Russian space agency is isolating itself,” she said. “Maybe it’s Russia accelerating the death of connections that might happen in due time anyway. But now it’s on their terms.

NASA, which jointly manages the International Space Station with Roscosmos, has announced its intention to continue cooperating with its Russian counterparts. The two partners were negotiating a deal to launch Russian astronauts on Crew Dragon, a SpaceX vehicle that carries NASA astronauts.

Beyond cooperation with NASA, Russia said on Thursday it would end the sale of rocket engines to American companies.

“In a situation like this, we cannot provide the United States with the best rocket engines in the world,” Rogozin told Russian state television. “Let them fly on something else, their brooms, I don’t know what.

The frost could hit Northrop Grumman harder, which uses Russian-made engines for its Antares launch vehicle that carries cargo to the space station for NASA. SpaceX also provides this service to the space station, as do spacecraft launched by Japan and Russia.

In a more symbolic gesture, Mr Rogozin said that Russia would no longer provide assistance for the use of a different Russian engine already purchased and used by United Launch Alliance for Atlas 5, one of the most popular American rockets. frequently used.

ULA director general Tory Bruno played down the effect of the loss of technical aid from Russia, saying, “We can do without it if necessary.”



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Newsrust - US Top News: Russia's space isolation increases as OneWeb cancels launch
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