UK-backed OneWeb to use rival SpaceX rockets after Russian ban

Satellite firm to partner with Elon Musk’s company after being forced to abandon launch plans in Russia

OneWeb, the satellite company part-owned by the British state, is turning to Elon Musk’s SpaceX for help after it was barred from using Russian rockets to launch its latest orbiters.

Under the arrangement, the communications firm will partner with SpaceX for its first launches later this year, adding to the 428 micro-satellites it already has in low-earth orbit.

OneWeb and SpaceX did not disclose the terms of the launch arrangement. The company quotes a standard price of $67m to launch a Falcon 9 rocket – up from $62m earlier this year, “to account for excessive levels of inflation”. The 12% increase is the first in nearly six years.

OneWeb was forced to abandon its plans to launch on one of Russia’s Soyuz rockets earlier this month, after Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency, demanded the satellites not be used for military purposes and the British government halt its financial backing.

A Soyuz rocket carrying OneWeb satellites being removed from a launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on 4 March.
A Soyuz rocket carrying OneWeb satellites being removed from a launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 4 March. Photograph: ROSCOSMOS/Reuters

The House of Commons business committee chair, Darren Jones, had said it was “inappropriate” for OneWeb to take off from a launchpad at the Russian-owned Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan after the invasion of Ukraine, given the UK government’s large stake in the business.

“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision for the boundless potential of space,” said OneWeb’s chief executive, Neil Masterson. “With these launch plans in place, we’re on track to finish building out our full fleet of satellites and deliver robust, fast, secure connectivity around the globe.”

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The UK government took a £400m stake in OneWeb in July 2020, investing to save the business from bankruptcy when it failed to secure funding in March that year to continue building out its planned fleet of 650 satellites.

The investment came shortly after the UK was barred from accessing the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system due to Brexit. The government initially tried to argue that the stake would allow it to build a British alternative – a plan experts dismissed, since OneWeb’s communication satellites are radically different from those required for a navigation system. “We’ve bought the wrong satellites,” Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, said at the time.

The new launch arrangement carries its own awkward baggage: SpaceX and OneWeb are direct competitors, each aiming to offer a global satellite broadband network that can offer high-speed internet connections anywhere in the world. SpaceX’s service, Starlink, is provided by a fleet of 2,112 satellites in orbit.


Alex Hern Technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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