OneWeb Suspends Launches from Baikonur as Repercussions from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Grow

OneWeb Suspends Launches from Baikonur as Repercussions from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Grow

OneWeb announced today it is suspending all launches of its satellites from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. The next had been scheduled for tomorrow. The decison is in response to unacceptable demands by Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, after sanctions were imposed by Western governments following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Separately, Rogozin continued his retaliation against U.S. sanctions by ending sales of and support services for Russian RD-180 and RD-181 rocket engines for U.S. launch vehicles, saying the companies could use “broomsticks” instead.

OneWeb is launching a constellation of 648 communications satellites. The U.K.-based company is majority owned by the U.K. government and India’s Bharti Global. It planned to launch all of its satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets from Europe’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, Russia’s Vostochny launch site in Siberia, and the Baikonur Cosmodrome that Russia leases from Kazakhstan. The satellites are launched in groups of 34 or 36. Already 13 launches have taken place, putting 422 satellites in orbit.

The launches are arranged through a partnership between Russia’s space agency, State Space Corporation Roscosmos, and the France-based European launch services company Arianespace.

Sitting on a launch pad at Baikonur right now is the next set of 36. They were scheduled for launch on March 4 at 5:41 pm EST (March 5, 3:41 am local time in Baikonur).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the subsequent imposition of sanctions against Russia by the U.S., U.K., and many European countries is creating a fast-breaking set of impacts on government and commercial space programs.

So far, cooperation on the International Space Station is the only program essentially unaffected. The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries. Two Russians, four Americans and one German, representing the European Space Agency, are aboard. NASA officials have said repeatedly that nothing has changed on a day-to-day operational level.

The Expedition 66 crew currently on ISS, L-R: Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Thomas Marshburn (U.S.), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Raja Chari (U.S.), Mark Vande Hei (U.S.), Kayla Barron (U.S.), Matthias Maurer (ESA/Grmany).

The only exception is that Rogozin says Russia will no longer participate in joint experiments with Germany on the Russian segment. Earlier, Germany ended its scientific cooperation with Russia on the Spektr-RG space telescope. And Rogozin hinted yesterday that Russia may reconsider the future of the ISS if Americans don’t “cool down,” so the situation could change.

Other cooperative activities already are experiencing dramatic changes, including ESA’s participation in the ExoMars 2022 mission and OneWeb.

Rogozin demanded yesterday that the U.K. divest itself of its ownership stake in OneWeb, and that it receive guarantees the satellites would not be used for military purposes, or the OneWeb launch wouldn’t take place. The U.K. Minister for Business & Energy, Kwasi Kwarteng, replied that the U.K. government would not comply.

Today, OneWeb tweeted a one-sentence statement — it is suspending all of its launches from Baikonur. Five more were planned after this one.

Kwarteng replied that the U.K. government supports the decision and is reviewing all other projects that involve Russia.

Rogozin nonetheless later tweeted that launch preparations were ongoing and OneWeb would go bankrupt if the launch was cancelled. [All translations from Russian are via Google Translate.]

“At Baikonur, work according to the schedule of the second launch day has been completed. According to the results of viewing the telemetric information, there are no comments. Everything is regular.
Tomorrow morning at 10.00, at a meeting of the commission at Baikonur, a decision will be made on the advisability of continuing work with a foreign customer.”

“Rogozin: Russian counter-sanctions in space will lead to billions in losses for the US and UK, OneWeb is facing bankruptcy. … This company will go bankrupt if we make such a decision (to cancel launches) tomorrow.”

As a point of fact, OneWeb’s original owner actually declared bankrupty in 2020. The company was bought by its current investors later that year. But the company’s need to find a new way to get the rest of its constellation into orbit is certain to have a financial impact not only because other launch providers may charge more, but OneWeb is competing in this market with companies like SpaceX and its Starlink system that will be moving ahead while OneWeb is stalled.

Separately, Rogozin tweeted that Russia no longer would sell RD-181 rocket engines or provide services for existing RD-180 engines for U.S. companies.

“Interview of Dmitry Rogozin to the Rossiya 24 TV channel on March 3: Roskosmos will not service the remaining 24 RD-180 engines in the United States, and the RD-181 stops delivering.”

He reportedly also said “In a situation like this we can’t supply the United States with our world’s best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what.”

The United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket uses RD-180s. After Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Congress directed ULA to end its dependence on Russian engines for launching national security satellites. The company now is building a new rocket, Vulcan, with American-made engines (Blue Origin’s BE-4). ULA said in a statement earlier this week that it already has all the RD-180 engines it needs stored at its production facility in Decatur, AL. It added that although it had agreements for technical support and spares, they could manage without them.

ULA President Tory Bruno reiterated in a tweet on Tuesday, as ULA was launching NOAA’s GOES-T weather satellite on an Atlas V, that “We like to be able to consult with them in the event that the engine might do something unexpected. But, we have been flying them for years and have developed considerable experience and expertise.” GOES-T was the 92nd Atlas V launch, maintaining its 100 percent success record.

The situation is different for the RD-181s. Northrop Grumman uses them for its Antares rocket to launch Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. The congressional requirement to end dependence on Russian rocket engines do not apply in this case since Antares is used only for NASA missions, not national security satellites.

At a press conference prior to the most recent Antares launch on February 19, Northrop Grumman Director of Space Launch Kurt Eberly said they have enough RD-181s for the remaining cargo contracts it has with NASA. That is just two more. But NASA is getting ready to award more contracts to Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, the two companies that have been sending cargo missions to the ISS for the past decade, as well as a new entrant into this business, Sierra Space.

Northrop Grumman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what alternatives it has for launching Cygnus. Antares uses not only Russian engines, but the first stage is built in Ukraine, so its future is in doubt in any case.

Rogozin’s “broomsticks” remark is reminiscent of a tweet in 2014 when he famously said the U.S. could launch astronauts to the ISS on a “trampoline” instead of Russian Soyuz spacecraft if we were going to impose sanctions because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The U.S. was dependent on Russia for crew transportation to and from the ISS at the time because the shuttle had been terminated and replacement systems were not ready yet. At the time Rogozin was Deputy Prime Minister for the defense and aerospace sectors.

The U.S. did impose sanctions, but flights on Soyuz continue to this day so he clearly was not expressing official Russian policy.

Today he is head of Roscosmos, a state corporation, not a government agency. It is difficult to ascertain if his tweets over these past many days reflect Russian government policy or are just more examples of his vituperative personality. reached out to ULA and Northrop Grumman to ask if anyone in Russia has officially notified them of the change in their contracts, but neither replied by press time.

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