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Tense week for OneWeb as Baikonur team waits for war news

OneWeb at Baikonur Aug 2021.jpg

OneWeb staff are waiting in Baikonur in Kazakhstan this week with Arianespace colleagues wondering whether their whole programme is under threat.

It’s now clear, according to Capacity’s information, that Europe’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, will no longer be available for future OneWeb launches. 

That means OneWeb is solely dependent on Russia for the remaining launches, either from Baikonur, where this week’s launch is due, or from Russia’s new site close to the Chinese border.

War and a break-up of an international space-flight consortium are disrupting this week’s plans, which should have seen 36 more US-built satellites put into service, to take OneWeb’s total to 464 of its planned 648.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week questions the future role of Baikonur in OneWeb, a global project. The launch site, first built for the Soviet space programme including Yuri Gagarin’s flight in 1961, is now in a Russian-controlled enclave in independent Kazakhstan.

But secondly, the war has brought about a break-up of the long cooperation between Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and Arianespace, the French company that uses Russian Soyuz rockets to launch satellites.

Arianespace also uses its own Ariane 5 rockets – as for the James Webb telescope, launched on 25 December from Kourou, French Guiana.

But Soyuz has been its workhorse for years. Arianespace has used it for all the OneWeb launches, which started in 2020 and are due to continue through this year until all 648 OneWeb satellites are in orbit.

Last week Dimitry Rogozin, director-general of Roscosmos, complained that sanctions against Russia threatens the long-term collaboration over the International Space Station, a joint venture of Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the US.

But more immediately all future launches for OneWeb appear threatened by the war.

All members of the crew for this week’s launch 14 are there. All launches have been paid for, and the payment was confirmed when the OneWeb project was rescued by India’s Bharti group along with the UK government in 2020. Capacity understands that there are no payments still to be made that might be blocked by sanctions or Russia’s part-exclusion from international financial services.

But OneWeb declined to comment to Capacity on the situation in Baikonur, either on this week’s 36 satellites, or the fate of the further 184 that are coming off the Airbus-OneWeb joint production line in Florida. They have been designed for launch on Soyuz, either in Baikonur or from Russia’s new space site in the Russian far east, Vostochny.

 

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