A few weeks ago, such cooperation would have been considered impossible. But Russia has invaded Ukraine, and there is nothing like it before: it is SpaceX, its main competitor, which will ensure the placement in orbit of the constellation of satellites by British operator OneWeb. The company confirmed this in a statement on Monday, saying the first launch should take place this year.
“We are grateful to SpaceX for its support, which reflects our shared vision of the unlimited potential of space,” explains Neil Masterson, the boss of OneWeb. “With these launch plans in place, we are on track to complete the construction of our entire fleet of satellites and deliver stable, fast and secure connections around the world.”
The company has little choice, after an ultimatum sent on March 2 by Russia’s space agency. In retaliation for British sanctions against Moscow, Roscosmos demanded that the British government withdraw from the company’s capital (which it saved from bankruptcy in 2020), and guarantee that its satellites would not be used for military purposes. Dissatisfied with these two points, the Russian agency threatened to nail its satellites to the ground by canceling the Soyuz rocket launch scheduled for two days later.
OneWeb is owned by the United Kingdom with almost 18%, as well as by some private operators such as Indian group Bharti, Japanese Softbank or French Eutelsat. The company will put 220 additional satellites into orbit this year to complete its constellation, intended to provide internet connectivity across the planet. All will be launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome, using Soyuz rockets. Currently, OneWeb has 428 satellites in low orbit, an insufficient number to market its service.
Far from giving in to Russian blackmail, the British operator immediately announced the suspension of all launches from Baikonur. “Russia’s counter-sanctions in space will lead to billions in losses for the US and UK, OneWeb awaits bankruptcy. The company will not be able to fully deploy its orbital constellation,” Roscosmos boss rejoiced. Dmitry Rogozin, former defense minister of Vladimir Putin.
In the process, Russia’s space agency indicated that it had no intention of returning the amounts collected for the launch of the remaining satellites. The contract, which ended in September 2020, provides for 16 launches until the end of 2022. The company also does not expect to see 36 satellites that are supposed to fly by March 4th.
Deprived of Russian launchers and forcing time, OneWeb had little choice. Ariadne 5? The European heavy launcher has been on sale for several months. Ariadne 6? It has yet to make its first flight, nor the future Vega-C light launcher. Vega remains, where the threat of supply disruptions is growing: its machines are made in Ukraine …
For the British operator, SpaceX and its available Falcon 9 rockets are a logical, if paradoxical, choice: the American company, which has deployed its own constellation of satellites along with Starlink, is generally considered the main its competitor, even if the two solutions do not target. exactly the same audiences. OneWeb instead aims to address a professional and institutional clientele, while SpaceX seems primarily interested (even now) in individuals. Elon Musk also has several thousand terminals delivered to Ukraine in recent weeks, to maintain internet connectivity in the country.
Bad weather for Arianespace
This agreement, which could allow OneWeb to market its service in a matter of months, seemed like a snub to Roscosmos, whose boss responded with his usual moderation. “Enjoy your meal!», reacted to Dmitry Rogozin on Twitterposts picture of snake swallowing mouse.
But it was also a blow for Arianespace, which sold Soyuz launches from Baikonur, and saw the launch of more than 200 satellites escape. Not to mention that we found out, the same day in Challenges magazine, that the German group OHB was maneuvering behind the scenes to entrust SpaceX instead of Ariane 6 with the launch of the next European Galileo satellites …
Since the war began in Ukraine, and the sanctions hit Moscow in return, the Russian space agency has terminated most of its international partnerships (with the exception of the ISS). The Russian agency notably suspended its Soyuz launches from Kourou and deported its personnel, ended American participation in the Venus Venera-D program, or suspended all cooperation with the German space agency. The ExoMars 2022 mission, which was supposed to leave Baikonur in the autumn, has also been postponed by the European Space Agency. Roscosmos said it wants to focus on defense activities.