Russia’s space agency said on Wednesday it would not launch a batch of 36 OneWeb satellites this week unless the UK government divested its stake in the satellite internet company, a prospect the UK business secretary confirmed. later will not happen.
A Russian Soyuz rocket taxied to its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Wednesday, moving into position for a launch on Friday. But hours later, the head of Russia’s space agency issued an ultimatum to OneWeb and the UK government, one of the company’s major shareholders.
Dmitry Rogozin, who has made numerous inflammatory statements since Russia invaded Ukraine, said he would not launch on Friday unless OneWeb guarantees that its satellites will not be used for military purposes. and that the British government withdraws as a shareholder of the company.
“Due to Britain’s hostile stance against Russia, another condition for the launch (of OneWeb) is that the UK government withdraws from OneWeb,” Russian space agency Roscosmos said in a statement.
The ultimatum prompted a swift response from Kwasi Karteng, Britain’s business and energy secretary.
“There is no trading on OneWeb: the UK government is not selling its share,” Karteng tweeted. “We are in contact with other shareholders to discuss next steps.”
“OK. I give you two days to think,” Rogozin replied. “(If) there will be no guarantee of non-military use of the system – there will be no system.”
Rogozin said the Soyuz rocket will be pulled from the launch pad if Russia does not get the assurances it wants from OneWeb by 9:30 p.m. Moscow time (6:30 p.m. GMT; 1:30 p.m. EST) on Friday, when officials are due to decide if they want to power the pitcher.
Chris McLaughlin, OneWeb’s head of government, regulation and engagement, said the company’s employees are no longer on site in Baikonur.
“We await a response from our shareholders,” he wrote in an email to Spaceflight Now, referring to the UK business secretary’s earlier statement that the UK government would not sell its shares in OneWeb.
OneWeb launched 428 of its planned 648 satellites on Soyuz rockets from spaceports in Kazakhstan, Russia and French Guiana. The company is building a network to deliver high-speed, low-latency Internet services around the world.
The partially complete network can provide high-speed connectivity in high-latitude regions – such as Alaska, Canada and northern Europe – but does not yet offer uninterrupted global reach. OneWeb says its network can connect schools, hospitals and rural communities.
Last year, OneWeb announced agreements to provide connectivity to US and European military users.
Peraton, a military contractor, said it will partner with OneWeb to offer communications services to the US Department of Defense, with connectivity for military forces operating in remote and hard-to-reach areas. OneWeb also announced an agreement with Airbus in December to provide services to the British military, as well as other European defense and security forces.
“OneWeb’s network supports air, land, sea and space communications for government networks and missions requiring rapid deployment capability; military-grade network security; flexibility and the ability to scale,” the company says on its website.
Later Wednesday, Rogozin tweeted a video showing Russian crews at Baikonur installing 3M adhesive panels over the British, Japanese and American flags on the Soyuz rocket’s payload fairing. The video did not show the team covering the Indian, French and South Korean flags on the rocket.
Flags have been added to the payload fairing to represent the home countries of major OneWeb program partners.
Стартовики на Байконуре решили, что без флагов некоторых стран наша ракета будер к. pic.twitter.com/jG1ohimNuX
— РОГОЗИН (@Rogozin) March 2, 2022
The first OneWeb satellites were launched in 2019, before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2020. OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy under new co-ownership by Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global and the UK government.
Other major investors in OneWeb include Japanese company SoftBank, French satellite communications company Eutelsat, US company Hughes and South Korean conglomerate Hanwha.
OneWeb’s network is one of two large megaconstellations well advanced in deployment and initial operations. SpaceX’s Starlink internet fleet is the other.
Arianespace won a contract in 2015 to launch OneWeb’s satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets. After several changes, the agreement between Arianespace and OneWeb now covers 19 launches aboard Russian Soyuz rockets. The Friday launch was supposed to be the 14th of 19 Soyuz missions under the contract.
Soyuz rockets are purchased by Arianespace through Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Roscosmos, from the Progress Rocket Space Center in Samara, Russia. Arianespace claims to be responsible for the overall mission and flight capability of Soyuz rockets.
In an interview on a Russian state television channel, Rogozin said the contract for the upcoming OneWeb launch has been “paid in full”.
“We received all the money for the manufacture of booster rockets and for the necessary launch services,” he said.
Without mentioning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rogozin claimed that “force majeure” had occurred, blaming the “aggressive policy of the West and the sanctions applied to Russia”.
Arianespace did not respond to questions from Spaceflight Now.
OneWeb’s satellites are built in a factory just outside the gates of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus. They fly in polar orbit at an altitude of 745 miles (1,200 kilometers).
If OneWeb is unable to complete its six remaining Soyuz launches, it is unclear which launch providers might be able to serve as an interim solution.
SpaceX could launch OneWeb satellites from its facilities a few miles from the OneWeb factory. But SpaceX’s Starlink network is a competitor to OneWeb, perhaps stifling any appetite for cooperation from either company.
United Launch Alliance has sold all of its remaining Atlas 5 rockets, and the company’s new Vulcan launch vehicle is not yet ready to fly.
Arianespace holds the OneWeb launch contract, but also has no near-term options to host the OneWeb satellites. Europe’s Vega rocket is too small to carry a large number of OneWeb satellites on a single mission, and Europe’s Ariane 5 is fully booked until retirement. The new European rocket, Ariane 6, is still in development.
OneWeb could launch satellites on Indian rockets, relying on Bharti Global, the company’s largest Indian shareholder. But it’s unclear when an Indian launch vehicle might be available, or what modifications might be needed to OneWeb satellites and their deployment mechanisms to accommodate another type of rocket.
Russia’s ultimatum to OneWeb and the British government comes days after Rogozin announced that Roscosmos would evacuate Russian specialists from French Guiana, home to Europe’s main spaceport. Russian teams were working there to prepare for a Soyuz rocket mission in early April with two European Galileo navigation satellites.
Rogozin said 29 of the 87 Russian employees have already left French Guiana. The Soyuz rocket for the April launch has already been delivered to the Guiana Space Center, but Russian technicians and engineers are needed to prepare the vehicle for flight.
The disruption means the Galileo satellites will remain on the ground and raises doubts about the long-term future of Soyuz launch operations in French Guiana.
Following the April launch, another Soyuz rocket was due to lift off from French Guiana later this year with two additional Galileo navigation satellites. Other missions scheduled to launch on Soyuz rockets from French Guiana include the French military‘s CSO 3 optical spy satellite and the EarthCARE climate science mission for the European Space Agency.
ESA’s Euclid telescope, designed to study dark energy and dark matter, is also earmarked for a Soyuz launch from French Guiana next year.
The Soyuz launch base in French Guiana entered service in 2011 under a cooperation agreement between Roscosmos and the European Space Agency. Since then, 27 Soyuz rockets have been launched from the Guiana Space Center, carrying Galileo navigation satellites, commercial communications and Earth observation payloads, space science missions and French and Italian military satellites.
French Guiana is a French overseas department, which means that the spaceport is built on the territory of a NATO country. The Soyuz launch pad in French Guiana is owned by Europeans and Arianespace oversees launch operations at the site.
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