OneWeb, a victim of the space war between Russia and the UK

Definitely life is not a long calm river for the OneWeb constellation. Having avoided bankruptcy in the spring of 2020, the British government-owned company (17.6%) is now blocked from deploying its group due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Wednesday, Moscow demanded that London withdraw to the capital of OneWeb by March 4, as well as mandatory legal guarantees for its non-military use, otherwise it threatened to no longer send the constellation satellites into orbit. London immediately refused Moscow’s conditions. Thursday, The OneWeb board, under pressure from the UK, voted to suspend launches from Baikonur. Private shareholders must have had a hard time starting with Indian group Bharti (30% of OneWeb).

This was announced on Friday by the director general of the Russian space agency Roskosmos. Dmitry Rogozin promised OneWeb “bankruptcy”. “Russian counter-sanctions in space will lead to billions in losses for the US and the UK, OneWeb is facing bankruptcy. The company will not be able to fully deploy the orbital constellation”he explained. Roskosmos assures that OneWeb has no other way “in the near future” send their satellites into space, not counting the use of Soyuz launch vehicles.

428 out of 648 satellites

ABOUTproduced by Arianespace on behalf of OneWeb, llaunch ST38, which was supposed to pass on the night from Friday to Saturday from Baikonur, was rescheduled “sine die in accordance with the conditions set by Roscosmos for continued operation”explained the commercial subsidiary of ArianeGroup in a press release released on Friday. Of the 16 Soyuz launches signed between OneWeb and Arianespace had only six to complete in September 2020, including flight ST38.

The current constellation since the last launch in Kourou on February 10 428 satellites in orbit. Or 66% of the fleet of 648 LEO (low orbit) satellites programmed by OneWeb. Probably not enough to provide global communications with high speed, low latency and, above all, no service interruption. OneWeb was supposed to start providing a global service from 2022.

And now ?

Several questions arise about the future of this constellation. In the short term, what will happen to the 36 satellites that were supposed to be launched on the night from Friday to Saturday? At an industrial level, there is a risk that the Russians will reverse engineer OneWeb satellites to replicate and improve their know-how. Especially this Dmitry Rogozin, who ordered on behalf of OneWeb to stop all launches of Russian launchers, considered that he had no guarantees from OneWeb that his “The satellites of the group will not be used for military purposes”. In his press release Arianspace promised to work “together with partners to ensure the state of goods and materials at Baikonur at present”. I’m not sure, however, that a European launcher marketing company currently controls anything at Baikonur, Kazakhstan, whose spaceport is run by Russia.

In the medium term Arianespace you will have to find a backup on Soyuz in the person of OneWeb, which could also find a solution on its own. A subsidiary of ArianeGroup claims that “in close contact with its customers and the French and European public authorities to deal with all the consequences of this situation and create the necessary alternatives”. However, in this case, Arianespace runs the risk of being especially alone. Because I’m not at all sure that France and the European Union (EU) will help him find a solution that facilitates the deployment of a constellation that competes with what … The EU, or rather, European Commissioner Thierry Breton, supported by France, has decided. In mid-February, 27 EU countries agreed in Toulouse on the need for the EU to have its own constellation of encrypted communications satellites.