SpaceX has a new deal to launch internet-beaming satellites for its chief competitor in the satellite business — British company OneWeb.
The somewhat awkward pairing, announced by OneWeb on Monday, comes after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine effectively brought a halt to Russian launches of commercial Western satellites. A launch deal between OneWeb and Russia that was brokered through an intermediary fell through, with the Russian space agency essentially holding the company’s satellites hostage, as they sat loaded on board a Russian Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
The new deal puts SpaceX, the world’s most prolific commercial launch provider, in the unique position of launching satellites that could compete with its own Starlink satellites in the space-based internet business. OneWeb is, however, currently marketing its services to businesses rather than directly to consumers, as SpaceX does with Starlink.
OneWeb, which is partially owned by the British government, was set to launch a batch of 36 internet satellites in early March. But Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos and a former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia with a flair for inflammatory rhetoric, then announced Russia would refuse to go ahead with what should be a routine launch in response to UK sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
The agency demanded that the UK government sell its stake in OneWeb, and that the company guarantee the satellites would not be used for military purposes, according to an ultimatum spelled out on Twitter from Roscosmos’ offical account. Roscosmos stressed the demands are “due to the UK’s hostile stance towards Russia” on Wednesday.
“The Board of OneWeb has voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur,” the UK firm said in a statement responding to Rogozin’s tweets.
Rogozin has tweeted flamboyant statements in the past in response to Western sanctions — namely in 2014 after the Russian annexation of Crimea. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” Rogozin said at the time on Twitter following US sanctions against Russia’s space sector.
Despite Rogozin’s flamboyant tweets and interviews, the West and Russia have historically cooperated in space. Teams that work on the International Space Station, which counts the United States and Russia as its primary operators, are still working closely together behind the scenes, according to NASA, despite the increasingly confrontational rhetoric.
The first SpaceX launch of OneWeb satellites is now slated for this year. OneWeb said in its announcement that its constellation of internet satellites stands at 428 satellites, or about 66% of the total that the company will need to provide continuous coverage to places on the ground. The company is working to attract customers and pay back investors after the UK government and India’s Bharti Global saved it from bankruptcy in 2020.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The Elon Musk-led company is still far ahead of its competitor in deploying its satellite internet constellation. Roughly 2,000 SpaceX Starlink satellites are already in orbit and it has customers all over the world. Earlier this month, SpaceX even delivered Starlink ground terminals to the Ukrainian government amid Russia’s invasion, which could allow people in the country to remain online if Earth-based internet infrastructure in Ukraine is destroyed.