OneWeb suspends launches as Russia increases demands on space internet provider

The parent company of the Space Coast-based OneWeb Satellites confirmed launch pause Thursday

OneWeb Satellites announced Thursday it would pause launches after Russian officials made statements targeting the company. (Malcolm Denemark, Florida Today)

The parent company of a Florida internet satellite manufacturing facility has suspended all launches of its spacecraft after Russian officials took aim at its operations and relationship with the United Kingdom this week, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

OneWeb, parent company of the Space Coast-based OneWeb Satellites, on Thursday confirmed it would pause launches of its satellites from Kazakhstan where Russia operates the Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport for its Soyuz rockets. The decision came after after Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space corporation Roscosmos, made statements aimed at the company’s operations and ownership, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.

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In a video posted to Twitter Wednesday, Rogozin made two demands of OneWeb as the company’s newest batch of satellites waited for liftoff from Baikonur. First, the company would need to end its relationship with the government of the United Kingdom, which owns a majority of OneWeb. Second, it would have to guarantee its space-based internet constellation would not be used for military purposes.

Rogozin said the demands are due to the UK’s new sanctions against Russia and its invasion of Ukraine. The calculated move left OneWeb stuck on the pad without a way to get off the ground, and the company’s board decided to call off Kazakhstan-based launches on Russian Soyuz rockets.

In a short statement on Twitter, OneWeb simply said: “The Board of OneWeb has voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur.”

Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K.’s business and energy secretary, said his government will not sell its share: “There’s no negotiation on OneWeb: the U.K. Government is not selling its share. We are in touch with other shareholders to discuss next steps.”

OneWeb’s 330-pound, mini-fridge-sized internet satellites are built in a factory near Kennedy Space Center, then shipped to one of two sites – French Guiana in South America or Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan – for liftoff. The local operation is operated with input from European aviation and aerospace giant Airbus.

When asked how sanctions and the decision to not launch from Baikonur would impact Space Coast factory operations, a OneWeb Satellites spokesperson said the company is “monitoring the situation closely together with our partner, customer, and suppliers. It is premature to comment in detail about the impact of sanctions.”

OneWeb declared bankruptcy in March 2020. During negotiations, the U.K. government and India-based Bharti Enterprises stepped in to invest in the company and gained significant influence.

OneWeb is one of several new efforts to populate low-Earth orbit with thousands of internet-beaming satellites, bypassing the need for complicated ground infrastructure. Satellite-based internet has been discussed for decades, but not until recently have technological advances made full-blown constellations sustainable for private companies.

In total, OneWeb has launched 13 missions and operates a fleet of 428 internet satellites. The last launch was hosted in French Guiana, a territory of France where the European Union operates a spaceport. OneWeb previously said its goal of launching 648 satellites to low-Earth orbit includes a variety of customers from small rural communities to military organizations.

OneWeb’s goals are similar to SpaceX’s Starlink: build out a network of hundreds and even thousands of satellites in orbit, then deliver internet service to anyone who needs it. SpaceX tends to have a more open policy with its service, allowing almost anyone to sign up online as long as coverage will become available soon. OneWeb, meanwhile, is currently more targeted toward heavy commercial users like maritime and aviation markets but still wants to reach the 3.2 billion people without reliable access.

Also this week, Airbus and Boeing announced they would stop critical airliner support in Russia, forcing the country’s aviation sector to find other sources. Boeing said it stopped “major operations” in Russia, while Airbus made a similar decision and will not supply parts and services to Russian airlines like Aeroflot.