Russia-Ukraine war raises questions for upcoming OneWeb launches

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DEVELOPING: In tweets March 2, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin said Friday’s launch of 36 OneWeb satellites would proceed only if the company guaranteed its satellites would not be used for military purposes and that the British government divest its stake in the company, demands the company is unlikely to accede to.


TAMPA, Fla. — Mounting international sanctions amid Russia’s war on Ukraine have thrown plans to launch 36 OneWeb satellites this week into uncertainty.

The latest batch of satellites for OneWeb’s broadband constellation is currently at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Russian-controlled launch site in Kazakhstan, where Europe’s Arianespace plans to launch them as soon as March 4 on a Russian Soyuz rocket.

Arianespace, which has been using Soyuz to deploy the low Earth orbit constellation from Kazakhstan, Russia and French Guiana, did not respond to requests from SpaceNews for an update on the launch plan.

Chris McLaughlin, OneWeb’s chief of government, regulatory affairs and engagement, told SpaceNews that “so far it looks like we’re on – but who knows?”

“I wouldn’t like to speculate on the launch,” McLaughlin said, adding that it “predates any sanctions.”

In response to European sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s space agency said Feb. 26 it is halting cooperation with Europe on Soyuz launches from French Guiana, where Arianespace launched OneWeb’s last batch of satellites Feb. 10

However, McLaughlin said OneWeb had already planned to launch the second half of its constellation on Soyuz rockets from Kazakhstan this year.

OneWeb’s remaining launches have also already been paid for, according to McLaughlin, meaning there are no payments that could be blocked by sanctions or efforts to limit Russia’s access to international financial services. 

Meanwhile, Russias space agency Roscosmos appears committed to moving ahead with OneWebs upcoming launch.

The Soyuz-2.1b carrier rocket has been cleared for rollout and installation at the launch pad on March 2, Roscosmos tweeted March 1.

But even if Baikonur remains open, it is unclear whether export restrictions could affect the transport of OneWeb satellites from where they are made in Florida to the launchpad in Kazakhstan. 

Another potential wrinkle, unrelated to sanctions: OneWeb has traditionally used An-124 aircraft that are operated and maintained by Ukraine’s Antonov to ship its spacecraft overseas. Availability issues aside, airspace restrictions over Europe could complicate otherwise routine logistics. 

McLaughlin said OneWeb is “reviewing daily” its remaining launches as the geopolitical situation continues to evolve.

Arianespace has launched 428 of OneWeb’s planned 648-strong constellation in 13 missions to date: Two from French Guiana, five from Kazakhstan and six from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. 

In 2020, Arianespace and OneWeb detailed an agreement that covered a total 19 Soyuz launches for the constellation.

OneWeb had aimed to have deployed the full constellation before the end of August to provide global connectivity services, according to McLaughlin.

Russia’s decision to withdraw 87 employees of several Russian companies that support Soyuz launches in French Guiana will, at a minimum, delay a plan to launch two satellites for Europe’s Galileo navigation system that was slated for April.

 

This article was updated March 1 to include a tweet from Roscosmos