Space. Private Soyuz, OneWeb bets on SpaceX

A few weeks ago, such cooperation would have been considered impossible. But Russia has invaded Ukraine, and nothing is as before: it is SpaceX, its main competitor, that will guarantee the placement in orbit of the satellite constellation of the British operator OneWeb. The company confirmed this in a statement on Monday, noting that the first release is expected to take place this year.

“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision of the limitless potential of space,” explained Neil Masterson, head of OneWeb. “With these launch plans in place, we are on track to complete the construction of our complete satellite fleet and provide robust, fast and secure connectivity around the world.”

Russian ultimatum

The company had little choice, after the ultimatum sent on March 2 by the Russian space agency. In retaliation for British sanctions against Moscow, Roscosmos demanded that the British government withdraw the company’s capital (which it saved from bankruptcy in 2020) and a guarantee that its satellites would not be used for military purposes. For lack of satisfaction on these two points, the Russian agency threatened to nail its satellites to the ground, canceling the launch of the Soyuz rocket scheduled for two days later.

OneWeb is owned by the United Kingdom with around 18%, as well as several private operators such as the Indian group Bharti, the Japanese Softbank or the French Eutelsat. The company was due to put 220 additional satellites into orbit this year to complete its constellation, meant to provide internet connectivity across the planet. All were to be launched from the Baikonur cosmodrome, using Soyuz rockets. Currently, OneWeb has 428 satellites in low orbit, an insufficient number to be able to market its service.

No refund

Far from giving in to Russian blackmail, the British operator immediately announced the suspension of all Baikonur launches. “Russian 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,” gloated Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin, Vladimir Putin’s former defense minister.

In the lawsuit, the Russian space agency had indicated that it had no intention of refunding the sums raised for the launch of the remaining satellites. The contract, concluded in September 2020, provided for 16 launches by the end of 2022. The company also does not expect to see the 36 satellites that should have taken off on March 4.

Deprived of Russian launchers and pressed for time, OneWeb had little choice. Ariadne 5? The European heavy hitter has been sold out for several months now. Ariadne 6? It hasn’t even made its maiden flight yet, nor the future Vega-C light launcher. There remains Vega, over whom the threat of supply interruptions hangs: its engines are manufactured in Ukraine…

For the British operator, SpaceX and its Falcon 9 reusable rockets were a logical, if paradoxical, choice: the American company, which deploys its own constellation of satellites with Starlink, is generally considered its main competitor, even if the two solutions do not target the exact same audience. OneWeb seeks to serve a professional and institutional clientele, while SpaceX appears to be primarily interested (at least for now) in individuals. Elon Musk has also had several thousand terminals delivered to Ukraine in recent weeks in order to maintain internet connectivity in the country.

Bad weather for Arianespace

This deal, which could allow OneWeb to market its service in a few months, sounds like an affront to Roscosmos, whose boss reacted with his usual restraint. ” Enjoy your meal ! “, reacted Dmitri Rogozin on Twitterposting a picture of a snake swallowing a mouse.

But it is also a blow to Arianespace, which has marketed Soyuz launches from Baikonur, and sees the launch of more than 200 satellites slip away. Not to mention that we learned, on 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 start of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions that hit Moscow in return, the Russian space agency has ended most of its international partnerships (with the notable exception of the ISS). The Russian agency notably suspended its Soyuz launches from Kourou and repatriated its personnel, ended American participation in the Venus Venera-D program or stopped all collaboration with the German space agency. The ExoMars 2022 mission, which was supposed to leave Baikonur in the fall, has also been delayed by the European Space Agency. Roscosmos said it wanted to focus on defense activities.

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