Ukraine fallout. Dispute with Russian regime over stranded satellites, sees OneWeb give up on recovery of its equipment
British satellite internet firm OneWeb is nearing completion of its LEO (low Earth orbit) satellite fleet, required to deliver high-speed, low-latency connectivity to the northern hemisphere.
Reuters last week reported that OneWeb will launch from India the final batch of satellites needed to complete its global network on 26 March, and the firm said it expects to begin global service for new government and enterprise customers shortly thereafter.
However there have been a few problems along the way – with a notable one concerning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and the resulting global condemnation and isolation of the Russian regime.
OneWeb intends to have a 648 LEO (low Earth orbit) satellite fleet that will deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband connectivity, covering the UK, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada.
As of January 2023, OneWeb has launched 544 satellites, with 542 being functional.
OneWeb had intended to make global services available in 2022, and indeed, it has already activated service with its network at the 50th parallel and above.
OneWeb had been launching most of its satellites from Russian facilities, but when Russia had launched its unprovoked war against Ukraine in February 2022, the huge wave of global condemnation and sanctions against Russia indirectly impacted OneWeb.
For years OneWeb had contracted with France-based Arianespace to launch its satellites, which in turn had used Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to deliver the satellites to low earth orbit.
Stung by the global sanctions and Russia’s collapsing economy, Roscosmos in March 2022 refused to allow the launch of 36 OneWeb satellites, and then publicly issued a number of demands to the British government before it would carry out its contracted launch, which had already been brought and paid for.
Roscosmos Director-General Dmitry Rogozin tweeted at the time that the agency would not launch the satellites as planned, if OneWeb did not guarantee that the satellites would not be used for UK military purposes.
And Roscosmos further demanded that the United Kingdom government remove its investment in OneWeb as another condition for launch.
Roscosmos said if these demanded were not met, the launch would not take place.
Roscosmos also cut ties with its other long-time partners, citing the sanctions as rationale.
On 26 February 2022 the Russian space agency said it would no longer collaborate with the European Space Agency at the European spaceport in French Guiana, on the north coast of South America.
Of course the British government flatly refused to entertain the demands from the Russian space agency, resulting in OneWeb reaching an alternative launch agreement with Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
OneWeb also signed a contract with New Space India to launch OneWeb satellites from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, Sriharikota, later in 2022.
Now Reuters quoted OneWeb’s chief executive as saying last week that the firm has largely given up on trying to retrieve its satellites from Russia.
One year after the launch was pulled, OneWeb has been unable to retrieve the satellites from their Soyuz launch site at the Russia-owned Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The satellites are worth a combined $50 million, OneWeb chief executive Neil Masterson was quoted as saying last week.
“I spend no time thinking about it. We’ve completely moved on,” Masterson reportedly said, deferring any future retrieval efforts to government authorities. “There is value getting them back, but I can tell you that I’m not getting them back any time soon.”
OneWeb, which manufactures at least two satellites per day, had another batch of 36 satellites ready for launch soon after cancelling Soyuz, Masterson reportedly said. “The bigger issue for us was not so much the satellites, it was securing the launches,” he reportedly said.
Asked if Russia’s custody of the commercially sensitive technology raises security or competitive concerns for OneWeb, Masterson said: “It’s not a material problem.”
Even if Russia were to reverse-engineer the satellites it would pose no threat to the business, Masterson reportedly said, citing the company’s extensive supply chain, spectrum access, and other foundations of the satellite network.