OneWeb satellites under assembly. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Soyuz ST-B lifts off with a sextuplet of OneWeb satellites on Feb. 27, 2019. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Soyuz-2-1b lifts off from Baikonur with 34 OneWeb satellites on February 7, 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Soyuz-2-1b rocket with 34 OneWeb satellites is being erected on the launch pad in March 2020. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Click to enlarge. Credit: Arianespace
Close-up view of OneWeb satellites being prepared for the seventh launch. Click to enlarge. Credit: Roskosmos
Russia's love-hate relationship with OneWeb
With the launch of the OneWeb constellation, the Russian rocket industry stands to earn millions, but the Kremlin is terrified at the prospect of unhindered access to the Internet by its citizens.
Illustration of the OneWeb constellation architecture.
What is OneWeb?
According to the London-based OneWeb company, its satellite network was designed to provide high-speed, no-delay Internet anywhere on Earth, focusing on previously under-served fields, including aviation and maritime industries. The relatively low cost of the service promised to bring online for the first time many regions and institutions, including schools and remote towns, which often do not have more traditional Internet access, such as cable or DSL. Customers would be able to use 3G, LTE, 5G and WiFi terminals to connect to the Internet via its satellites, OneWeb said.
OneWeb's initial operational satellite network was expected to include around 648 satellites deployed in a circular orbit around 1,200 kilometers above the Earth's surface. The spacecraft will be distributed over 18 orbital planes with 36 satellites in each plane. If global demand for its services grows, the constellation will be increased to more than 900 first-generation satellites working simultaneously, according to OneWeb. The company's founder Greg Wyler wrote that in its 2012 frequency filing, OneWeb had requested an option for a total of 1,980 satellites with 55 satellites per each orbital plane. That number in the constellation could be reached with the second-generation satellites.
Known specifications of the OneWeb constellation:
OneWeb satellites were developed by a European consortium Airbus Defense and Space, which entered into a joint venture with OneWeb in April 2016. The Russian OKB Fakel design bureau also served as a major sub-contractor in the project, providing the satellite's electric propulsion system.
The US-based Hughes company worked on a network of 50 initial ground stations for the OneWeb system and the company also invested into the project in June 2015.
In addition to Airbus and Hughes, other investors included Bharti, Virgin Group, SoftBank, Qualcomm and Coca Cola. In total, OneWeb said it had raised $1.7 billion for the project.
The assembly of initial OneWeb satellites was conducted at Airbus facility in Toulouse, France, but another plant in Florida, USA, was built for their mass production.
As of 2019, the demonstrations of OneWeb's service were expected to begin in 2020, followed by the start of the full service in 2021.
Known specifications of the OneWeb satellite, according to Arianespace:
Boost to Russian launch business
In June 2015, OneWeb booked 21 Soyuz launches through Arianespace for the first phase in the deployment of the 672-satellite constellation extending until 2020. (Another 39 deliveries were planned on the aircraft-deployed Launcher-One rocket built by Virgin Galactic, whose parent company Virgin Group invested into the project.)
RKTs Progress, the developer of the Soyuz rocket, said that Russia had received a one-billion dollar down payment for the deployment of the system. Such a massive launch contract became a lifeline for Russia's beleaguered space industry, as other customers spooked by multiple failures and sky-rocketing insurance rates for the workhorse Proton rocket had fled to competitors.
In addition to 21 orders for Soyuz rockets, Russian officials negotiated an option with OneWeb to order from three to 11 Proton rockets to launch additional OneWeb satellites, but that deal, which was estimated from $300 to $800 million, had not materialized so far, leaving Proton's commercial future in limbo.
To avoid bottlenecks in the unprecedented launch campaign, Roskosmos planned to fire its Soyuz rockets from all three available civilian launch sites -- Kourou, Baikonur and Vostochny. Thus, it would be the first significant use of the Soyuz launch pad in Vostochny, which before the arrival of OneWeb hosted just five missions since its inception in 2016.
By the beginning of 2019, Roskosmos planned to launch four OneWeb missions from Baikonur in 2019 and eight in 2020. At least five launches were expected from Vostochny, however at the end of 2018, RIA Novosti reported that despite a Russian proposal to shift two OneWeb missions from Baikonur to Vostochny in 2019, Arianespace refused citing logistical problems.
A threat to Kremlin?
As the OneWeb project was picking up steam (in large part thanks to the Russian rocket power), it dawned on the Kremlin what the easy, low-cost unfiltered access to the Internet could mean for Russia itself, particularly for its vast neglected territories away from central authorities and from the tight informational control. Suddenly, the launches of civilian OneWeb satellites looked even more controversial than various military and dual-use Western missions, which had previously rode into space with the help of Russian rockets or Russian-built rocket engines.
Ironically, the unprecedented ease and freedom of access to uncensored Internet by Russian citizens via the OneWeb network apparently scared the Kremlin much more than all Western spy satellites.
The issue was reportedly discussed several times at the highest level of the Russian government, including at the security council meetings chaired by Vladimir Putin, but apparently remained unresolved. The Russian security services and communications officials opposed any cooperation, while Roskosmos and at least some officials within the presidential administration reportedly lobbied for some kind of compromise. (853)
On Jan. 29, 2016, the State Committee for Radio Frequencies, GKRCh, allocated frequencies practically matching the range to be used by the customers of the OneWeb system to the operator of the obsolete Gonets satellite network. Officially, this frequency range was dedicated to the non-existent Gonets-WEB project, which envisioned the 12-spacecraft network of low-orbital satellites and four ground stations.
In reality, the move clearly aimed to provide a legitimate excuse for blocking the operation of the OneWeb system in Russia. (854)
Apparently understanding its precarious position in Russia, OneWeb tried to conform, like many Western businesses operating in totalitarian countries before it.
In 2017, OneWeb entered a joint venture with the Gonets company, which initially took 40-percent stake in it. According to the plan, the newly formed OOO OneWeb was expected to sell the company's services inside Russia in compliance with Russian law.
In July 2017, OOO OneWeb/Gonets re-applied for a frequency range to GKRCh, but despite several hearings, the issue had stalled, Dmitry Bakanov, the Director General of the Gonets system and OOO OneWeb, told the Kommersant newspaper. (855) Bakanov also described an array of other issues, which made the future of the OneWeb in Russia looking extremely murky.
In addition to obstacles at GKRCh, the Russian legislature was also apparently considering various measures to essentially ban the use of the OneWeb system in Russia in a slow-moving wider effort to control the Internet, probably emulating the Chinese model.
In the Fall of 2018, the Russian security services went ahead with a public assault against OneWeb. In their usual tradition, they accused the company's network to be a potential spy tool.
"The guarantee that the (OneWeb) system does not have spy capabilities and would not be able to inflict personal and societal harm in Russia has a declarative nature and can not be reliably verified by the Russian side," a representative of the FSB security agency Vladimir Sadovnikov was quoted as saying. Sadovnikov also expressed concern that OneWeb could become a monopoly in remote Russian regions, where it could be more convenient and cheaper than other (government-controlled) channels of communication.
The security services apparently proposed to restrict or completely block OneWeb operations on the Russian territory and even deny the company access to Russian rockets.
Ironically, it was Russian nationalist Dmitry Rogozin, then in charge of Roskosmos, who found himself defending the contract for the launch of OneWeb satellites on Russian rockets.
The proponents of the system in Russia, including Roskosmos, warned that Moscow would be shooting itself in the foot, by denying itself millions of dollars in revenues and further damaging its international reputation as a reliable launch service provider, while also letting its Western competitors to take over that lucrative business.
Moreover, banning the network in Russia might still not prevent its wide-spread illegal use. OneWeb's ground stations in Kazakhstan, Italy, Norway and the United States could still be effective on the Russian territory even without Moscow's permits, Bakanov said. (855) (Under normal circumstances, from four to six ground stations were to be spread across the Russian territory to support the OneWeb network).
Looking for a compromise?
All things considered, the Russian government apparently tried to have its cake and eat it too, by finding the way for allowing OneWeb into Russia, but somehow controlling and restricting its operations in the country. (853)
As the first preemptive measure, the Russian government urgently bought a majority stake in the OOO OneWeb venture by increasing its share in the company to 51 percent.
In December 2018, OneWeb also issued a press-release denying reports that it had offered to sell a stake in the main company to the Russian government. However, the company admitted that it was in the process of restructuring its joint venture with the Gonets "to comply with certain regulatory requirements in Russia." Earlier, the Reuters news agency reported that OneWeb had offered Moscow to buy a 12.5 percent stake in the company in exchange for approving its application for a frequency range inside Russia.
In the Feb. 25, 2019, interview with the Kommersant newspaper, (which was promptly re-published by Roskosmos), Dmitry Bakanov said that OOO OneWeb had fully cooperated with the country's security services in providing necessary information for the analysis of "risks and threats" posed by the OneWeb network in Russia. Bakanov was also quoted as saying that Gonets' (foreign) "partners also express open position."
Industry sources also said that just several days earlier, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had signed a document requiring an approval on the use of OneWeb signals with the FSB security agency and with the Federal Protective Service, FSO. Medvedev also reportedly decreed the creation of ground stations in Russia, apparently capable of controlling OneWeb satellites and blocking their operations. At that point, the "controlling" functions were expected to be limited to signals over the Russian territory, but, the Russian regulations regarding the OneWeb network were still in the works, sources said.
On July 29, 2019, quoting Deputy Prime-Minister of Communications Oleg Ivanov, the Kommersant reported that the nation's Stage Commission for Radio Frequencies, GKRCh, had rejected OneWeb's request for allocating frequencies necessary to operate inside Russia. The commission was unanimous in its decision, the Kommersant said.
The operational deployment of the OneWeb constellation was supposed to enter full gear in 2020, with launches from Baikonur and Vostochny. By that time, RKTs Progress was actively manufacturing at least 19 Soyuz-2 rockets, customized for both spaceports, while NPO Lavochkin was producing Fregat upper stages.
Two Fregat-M stages for upcoming OneWeb missions in 2020 departed NPO Lavochkin on November 24, 2019 and arrived at the Krainy airfield in Baikonur the next day, the company announced. In January 2020, the preliminary assembly of at least two Soyuz rockets assigned to OneWeb was conducted in Vostochny.
But on March 19, 2020, Bloomberg.com reported that OneWeb was considering filing for bankruptcy. A day later, TechCrunch.com reported that OneWeb had cut its workforce by as much as 10 percent. The coronavirus was cited as the cause in the slowdown of the company's satellite production and the pace of launches to deploy the constellation, but underlining financial and organizational issues were probably real culprits in the company's collapse.
Soon after the launch of the third OneWeb cluster from Baikonur on March 21, 2020, the entire launch operations team was laid off, along with most of the company employees, as OneWeb admitted it was in bankruptcy.
To make matters worse, a transport container and other support equipment used for launch operations in Baikonur was stuck indefinitely at the Site 112 processing building of the launch center, an industry source told RussianSpaceWeb.com. Under conditions of a global quarantine, the Antonov air transportation company needed clearances to land in Baikonur, Moscow, the US State of Maine and in Florida in order to complete the return of the hardware. Under the most optimistic scenario, the next OneWeb mission could lift off no earlier than the Summer 2020, but, other sources speculated that no further launches would take place until the end of the year, before the restructuring of the OneWeb company. As a result, Russia's last significant commercial launch contract was in limbo. At that time, more than half of the 21 Soyuz rockets for OneWeb missions were believed to be manufactured.
By the middle of April 2020, space historian Jonathan McDowell noticed that, according to orbital tracking data, a group of OneWeb satellites from the company's second launch, stopped their orbit raising maneuvers on April 3, 2020, at altitudes between 600 and 700 kilometers above the Earth's surface, or at least 500 kilometers below their planned altitude. At the time, the satellites from the third launch were still lower.
Asked about the fate of the spacecraft by the editor of this web site, Massimiliano Ladovaz from OneWeb wrote back on April 20 that the satellites from the third launch were still in process of climbing to an altitude of around 600 kilometers, where they would remain for the time being. "This is a sweet spot in terms of radiation and flexibility," Ladovaz wrote, "We want to preserve the satellites' life while our situation gets resolved."
In an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda radio on April 20, 2020, Head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin said that the main sum for OneWeb launches had already been received but the cancellation of future launches would still lead to financial losses for Russia in one way or another. Rogozin expressed hope that the OneWeb would find new investors and resume launches. At the time, the company was reported asking the UK government to provide the needed cash in exchange for consolidating all OneWeb operations, including satellite assembly, in the United Kingdom instead of a US state of Florida. OneWeb apparently warned that without federal financial assistance, its sensitive know-how could fall into wrong hands, likely implying China and Russia.
In early July 2020, the British Telegraph newspaper reported that the British government and India-based Bharti Global Limited consortium had won a bid to bail out OneWeb, providing 500 million each. The agreement was scheduled to be completed by the fourth quarter of 2020, the newspaper reported.
As of the end of July 2020, OneWeb continued work at its facility in the US state of Florida on assembling a fresh batch of satellites which could be shipped to Russia as early as September 2020 for the launch in the following month, an industry source told RussianSpaceWeb.com. This time, a Soyuz-2 rocket carrying the fourth cluster of OneWeb satellites would lift off from Russia's new Vostochny spaceport, rather than Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. More missions could follow resuming the deployment of the 900-satellite-plus constellation, which at the time counted 74 satellites in orbit.
However, OneWeb was yet to resolve a number of unique logistical issues on top of its wider bankruptcy reorganization before the launch campaigns could resume, the source said. First of all, the OneWeb personnel was yet to receive permission to travel to Russia and access the Vostochny launch site. In addition to the hurdles associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the entire western personnel would have to be vaccinated against the tick-born encephalitis with a vaccine that is not available in the United States, according to the source.
In May 2020, Dmitry Baranov, Director General at RKTs Progress, the manufacturer of the Soyuz rocket family, said that at the time, three Soyuz-2 vehicles configured for OneWeb missions were stored in Vostochny and one such booster was in Baikonur.
On September 22, 2020, OneWeb and Arianespace announced that the launches into the OneWeb constellation would resume as early as December of the same year with the liftoff of the Soyuz-2 rocket from Vostochny carrying 36 satellites. According to the amended contract with Arianespace, the OneWeb planned a total of 19 Soyuz rocket missions (including three completed flights) by the end of 2022 to deploy the entire network instead of 21 launches originally contracted in 2015. OneWeb also promised to begin offering commercial services with its constellation by the end of 2021.
In April 2021, Eutelsat said it would take a 24-percent stake in OneWeb (equal $550 million). It increased the investments into the company to $1.9 billion after bankruptcy or 80 percent of the required funding to full deploy its initial constellation, OneWeb said. In June 2021, India's Bharti Group put up another $500 million and, in August 2021, Hanwa announced $300-million investment in OneWeb, marking the full funding for the first generation of 648 satellites in the constellation, according to OneWeb.
Full list of launches into the OneWeb constellation: