Experts: Russian move to hold up OneWeb launch may affect entire space industry

A Soyuz MS-18 rocket launches NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei with Roscosmos cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Oleg Novitskiy in April from Kazakhstan. File Photo by Bill Ingalls
1 of 3 | A Soyuz MS-18 rocket launches NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei with Roscosmos cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Oleg Novitskiy in April from Kazakhstan. File Photo by Bill Ingalls | License Photo

March 2 (UPI) -- Russia's invasion of Ukraine hit the space industry harder Wednesday after Russian space agency Roscosmos said it would hold up a satellite launch for a British company -- which experts say may completely shift the industry away from Russia.

OneWeb, a communications satellite company partly owned by the British government, intended to launch 36 satellites Friday on a Russian Soyuz rocket. But Roscosmos issued a statement Tuesday saying the launch was in doubt.


"Roscosmos demands guarantees OneWeb satellites not to be used [sic] for military purposes," the agency posted on Twitter. "Because of Britain's hostile stance against Russia, another condition for the March 5 launch is that the British government withdraws from OneWeb."

OneWeb currently has over 400 satellites in orbit.

The British government issued a statement Tuesday saying it may no longer make sense to launch on any Russian rockets, according to the BBC.


But there will be no negotiation regarding the launch, Kwasi Kwarteng, Britain's Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said on Twitter Tuesday.

"The UK Government is not selling its share. We are in touch with other shareholders to discuss next steps..." he tweeted.

The moves by Roscosmos, as it becomes increasingly isolated, could cripple the space agency even more, Todd Harrison, a director with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview.

"Russia's space industry was already in a tailspin with the loss of business from the U.S.," Harrison said. "The response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine will exacerbate problems within Russia's space sector and could ultimately cause it to implode."

"We haven't seen this kind of rapid reshuffling of the space industry since the end of the Cold War, if ever," he added.

Space companies like OneWeb now clearly see the "risk of doing business with a nation like Russia ... or nations with potentially aggressive aspirations, like China," Harrison said.


"The big winners out of this will be low-cost launch providers outside of Russia -- with SpaceX being at the front of the pack," he said.

The dissolution of space ties between Russia and the West is shocking for its pace, but not unthinkable after the U.S. response to Russia's so-called "annexation" of the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014, space analyst Chris Quilty said in an email.

"OneWeb will have to decide how to launch the remaining 220 satellites of its first-generation constellation. This is a difficult time to find new launch arrangements as five of the world's seven heavy-lift vehicles are retiring and being replaced by new upgraded vehicles over the next two years," Quilty, owner of St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Quilty Analytics, said.

He said Soyuz is the most-flown space rocket in human history, so moving on without it will "certainly cause some discomfort."

He said Europe already plans to develop new Ariane rockets and the Vega C rocket.

"Outside of Europe, other countries that had payloads slated to launch through Russia will likely decide between SpaceX, Arianespace, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and a range of emerging launch vehicles," Quilty said.

Dmitry Rogozin, director general at Roscosmos, tweeted a video clip of workers at the Russian spaceport in Kazakhstan as they removed Japanese, British and U.S. flags from the rocket for Friday's launch.


"The launchers at Baikonur decided that without the flags of some countries, our rocket would look more beautiful," Rogozin said in the post, according to a translation.

NASA relies on Russia to provide vital services to the International Space Station, including thrust needed to keep the station in the proper orbit.

So far, NASA has said it doesn't believe the conflict in Ukraine will impact the space station, but other experts have said the crisis is the worst in the history of the ISS partnership of nations.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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