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OneWeb drops launches from Russia's Baikonur spaceport

One day after Roscosmos said 'hostile' UK govt should withdraw stake in satellite firm

The board of satellite constellation provider OneWeb this morning said it had voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur, a day after Russia's space agency said this weekend's lift-off was in doubt.

Roscosmos yesterday demanded the "withdrawal of the British government from the shareholders of OneWeb" after seeking a guarantee that the satellites would not be put to military use. It said in the tweet (loosely translated): "In connection with the hostile position of the UK towards Russia, another condition for the launch of OneWeb spacecraft on March 5 is the withdrawal of the British government from the shareholders of OneWeb."

The situation was already shaky after the UK government was urged to reconsider the launch by opposition MP Darren Jones.

The troubled satellite company was bailed out, in part, by the UK government in 2020. Half a billion dollars were spent by Whitehall on the acquisition (along with another $500m from Bharti Global) and the deployment of the company's first-generation satellite constellation was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2022.

This is now looking somewhat doubtful, given OneWeb's reliance on the Russian Soyuz rocket to carry its satellites to orbit.

Last month, the company launched another 34 satellites atop a Soyuz from the Arianespace facility in French Guiana, bringing the total in orbit to 428. In total the firm says the completed constellation would be 558 active with up to 100 in orbit spares. Another 36 sats had been scheduled to launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 22.41 UTC on 4 March.

How one would get those 36 satellites back from Baikonur is also open to question – today's statement notwithstanding – we've asked OneWeb, but the company has yet to respond.

Launching on a Soyuz from French Guiana is also out of the question. Roscosmos boss Dmitry Rogozin this week boasted of the return of 29 people to Moscow from French Guiana with another 56 departing in "the near future."

OneWeb is in an impossible situation, as is much of the space industry. Russian engines power an awful lot of the world's bigger launchers. United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V is currently burning through its stash of Russian RD-180 engines ahead of the booster's retirement in a few years while Northrop Grumman's Antares uses Russian RD-181 engines in its first stage. The former has enough engines to see out the programme, the latter has enough to get through the next two cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS).

Alternatives exist. There's SpaceX's Falcon 9, though ESA's Ariane 5 is both expensive and nearing retirement (and Ariane 6 is a few years from operational), and the Atlas V's manifest is full ahead of its replacement by the Blue Origin-powered Vulcan. Other rockets, such as Rocketlab's Neutron, are still years off.

Which brings us to the future of the ISS itself. NASA would like to keep the outpost in orbit until 2030, but this week Roscosmos expressed "skepticism" over extending past 2024 under sanctions. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is currently scheduled to return to Earth at the end of this month in a Russian Soyuz capsule.

Rogozin posted a sequence of tweets last week where he railed against sanctions and warned that without Russian Progress cargo ships, "who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?"

SpaceX boss Elon Musk's response was simple.

Could it be done? Possibly. The Cygnus freighter has the capability to reboost the ISS (if the station is reoriented) and other plans call for additional Dragon vehicles to replace the capabilities of the Russian segment of the outpost.

The clock is very much ticking for the ISS – 2024 is not that far away. ®

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