Russia’s rocket launch activity loss becomes SpaceX’s gain

OneWeb, a British satellite internet company that canceled rocket launches with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, is turning to SpaceX to send broadband satellites into space.

The alliance, announced by OneWeb on Monday, is unusual because SpaceX is currently OneWeb’s main rival in the market for delivering high-speed internet from orbit to users on the ground. But a messy dispute with Russian space agency Roscosmos, the company’s former launch supplier, prompted OneWeb to work with SpaceX. The move also underscores the growing isolation of Russia’s space industry from its Western partners following Moscow’s outbreak of war with its smaller neighbor.

The new agreement with SpaceX would allow OneWeb to complete construction of its constellation of 648 satellites in orbit and in internet beam on a new schedule, Neil Masterson, chief executive of OneWeb, said in a statement.

“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision of the unlimited potential of space,” he said.

OneWeb did not say how many launches it has purchased from SpaceX, which rocket the company will use or when it now plans to complete its constellation of satellites. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which costs about $62 million per launch, is its busiest launch vehicle. In addition to its deal with SpaceX, OneWeb is in talks with other launch vendors, Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, senior regulatory affairs adviser at OneWeb, said in an interview.

SpaceX’s first launch carrying OneWeb satellites “would be this summer, but we don’t have a date,” Pritchard-Kelly said.

OneWeb’s internet business is active in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, but the company will no longer be able to meet its goal of providing full global service in August 2022. Starlink, SpaceX’s competing internet constellation that relies on thousands of additional satellites at a lower altitude price, is already available to some consumers on a pilot basis and has been shipping in recent weeks to Ukraine.

OneWeb has sent 428 satellites – 66% of its constellation design – into orbit since 2019, each time using Soyuz, the Russian workhorse rocket that has been active since the war’s space race days cold.

In February, three days before the planned launch of the OneWeb satellite on a Russian Soyuz rocket from a Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan, Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, demanded that OneWeb cut ties with the British government, which had invested 500 million dollars in the company in 2020. to help it emerge from bankruptcy. Mr Rogozin’s ultimatum followed a barrage of Western sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion.

OneWeb instead canceled all six planned Soyuz launches, abandoning its goal of completing its constellation of satellites by August. Neither Britain nor any country in the European Union has a rocket available capable of putting the satellites into orbit. A OneWeb executive at the time said the company was considering rockets in the United States, India and Japan for its launches.

OneWeb officials said they do not know the fate of the 36 satellites that were carried aboard the Soyuz rocket whose mission was canceled last month. “They’ve been taken off course,” Ms. Pritchard-Kelly said of the satellites, referring to the shell that protects a rocket’s payload, “and I personally don’t know if they’re still in Kazakhstan or no”.

OneWeb is in talks with Arianespace, the French rocket company that brokered OneWeb’s Soyuz launches, about recovering the satellites and securing potential reimbursement for canceled Soyuz missions, Ms Pritchard-Kelly said. .

“Nothing was destroyed; all we did was waste time,” she said.

Mr. Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, said Monday on Twitter that OneWeb was “doomed”, repeating previous claims that failure to launch on the Soyuz would put the company out of business. He suggested that SpaceX could not deploy OneWeb’s satellites successfully, but offered no explanation as to why it lacked capacity.