Russia cancels space launch with OneWeb satellites
Russia has canceled the scheduled Friday launch of its Soyuz-2.1b rocket, after the London-headquartered company OneWeb, the owner of the payload, refused to provide additional legal guarantees that its satellites would not be used for military purposes.
The cancelation came as no surprise – on Thursday, OneWeb announced on its Twitter account that its board had voted to “suspend all launches” from the Baikonur cosmodrome, Russia’s main civilian launch site.
Earlier in the week, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, cast doubt on the feasibility of the Friday mission. He said Russia was concerned that OneWeb satellites, which provide access to the internet on the ground, would be used by NATO members for military purposes, contrary to the company’s assurances that the constellation posed no threat to Russia.
Rogozin cited a highly publicized move by Elon Musk, who is developing the competing space-based internet project Starlink. When asked last week by the Ukrainian government to provide Starlink equipment, Musk said the service had been turned on for the country. On Thursday, he tweeted that Starlink was “the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine,” and that there was a high probability of users being “targeted.”
Important warning: Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 3, 2022
According to the Russian space chief, both Starlink and OneWeb are dual-use systems. He said the company could convince him otherwise by removing the Russia-hostile British government as a shareholder and issuing a legally binding guarantee that its satellites would be used solely for civilian purposes.
During a televised Friday meeting on whether to proceed with the launch, a Russian space official claimed OneWeb had sent a letter to Russia only after publicly announcing it was suspending ties with Roscosmos.
Dmitry Loskutov, who heads up Roscosmos foreign contracts subsidiary Glavkosmos, said the letter had stated that no additional guarantees were deemed necessary. He noted, however, that those assurances contradicted the company’s own website, which advertised the military use of its system.
Rogozin consequently ordered the launch to be stopped, the Soyuz rocket to be disassembled, and the payload to be moved into storage. No further OneWeb launches by Russian vehicles will be conducted anytime soon, he announced.
Space cooperation between Russia and Western nations and businesses has fallen victim to the unprecedented escalation of tension triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week. The US and its allies have retaliated by imposing harsh economic sanctions on Moscow, some of which targeted Roscosmos.
In the same interview on Wednesday in which he declared his ultimatum to OneWeb, Rogozin lamented that the crisis had apparently put a lid on the ExoMars program, which was developed jointly by Roscosmos and the European Space Agency. He also suggested that the International Space Station might not now be operated beyond 2024 – the current deadline set by his agency for Russia’s involvement in the project.
The resources saved by Russia’s withdrawal from cooperation with Western powers will instead be allocated to joint projects with nations such as China, and to Russia’s domestic space missions, including military ones, Rogozin said.