Russia Roscosmos refusing to launch OneWeb satellites: Ukrainian crisis


A Soyuz 2 rocket launches 36 OneWeb satellites on March 25, 2020 from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia.

Roscosmos

The race for corporate Internet space has taken a geopolitical turn.

Russia’s Roscosmos space agency is refusing to launch the next batch of 36 OneWeb internet satellites on Friday unless the company meets the state agency’s requirements. Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin particularly pointed out that the ultimatum is a response to the UK sanctioning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Roscosmos said in a statement that the Soyuz rocket would be removed from the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan unless OneWeb meets two requirements:

  • The UK government sells its stake in the company.
  • OneWeb guarantees that the satellites will not be used for military purposes.

OneWeb and Arianespace, the European rocket builder that operates Soyuz rockets provided by Roscosmos, did not immediately respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.

A stack of 36 OneWeb satellites being prepared ahead of launch on March 25, 2020.

Arianespace

The company has launched 428 satellites into low Earth orbit on Soyuz rockets. OneWeb plans to operate a constellation of 650 satellites to provide global Internet coverage from space.

OneWeb was rescued from bankruptcy in 2020, with the UK government and Indian telecommunications conglomerate Bharti Global taking stakes to fund the company’s network.

Space companies have been scrambling to build next-generation satellite internet networks, mostly in low Earth orbit using hundreds or thousands of satellites. OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink represent the most mature versions of these concepts. Each started to provide services to customers.

But the companies’ approaches are largely distinct.

OneWeb’s business, for example, depends on multinational cooperation. OneWeb has a diversity of stakeholders across the world, with investors including the UK government, Bharti Global, Japanese investment giant SoftBank, European communications company Eutelsat and South Korean conglomerate Hanwha systems.

The company’s path to building its network is also global: OneWeb’s satellites are manufactured in Florida through a joint venture with European aerospace giant Airbus. Its launches are carried out via Arianespace on Russian-made rockets. Countries require regulatory approval for the company to provide the service.

In contrast, SpaceX is a highly verticalized private American company. Elon Musk’s company builds and launches Starlink internet satellites itself. SpaceX provides Starlink service in more than two dozen countries.

The company recently activated the service in Ukraine in response to government requests. SpaceX has also sent Starlink terminals to Ukraine, the antennae helping connect the country to the internet amid the Russian invasion.


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