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OneWeb suspends satellite launch from Russian spaceport

The decision follows Roscosmos’ demand that the UK sell its 20% stake in OneWeb purchased in 2020

A view of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket, meant to carry OneWeb satellites into orbit, being load into a hanger at Baikonur Cosmodrome

OneWeb has suspended its plans to launch 36 broadband satellites from a Russian-operated spaceport in Kazakhstan, which were due to launch on Friday, 4 March.

The decision comes one day before the scheduled launch, which was part of OneWeb’s effort to provide “high-speed, low-latency global connectivity”.

The launch was to be overseen by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, involving Russian-made Soyuz rockets.

In a brief statement, the UK government-backed network satellite company said its board members “voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur" – the ​​Russian launch site that has also been previously used for Soviet space missions.

The decision follows Roscosmos’ demands that the UK government sell its 20% stake in OneWeb, purchased in 2020.

According to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, this would guarantee that the OneWeb satellites launched in Kazakhstan wouldn’t be used for the UK government’s military purposes.

Rogozin had given OneWeb a deadline of 9:30 PM on 4 March to comply with Roscosmos’ demands – a little over one hour before the satellites were scheduled to be launched into space at 10:41 PM GMT.

The UK government refused to sell its shares, with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng stating that “there's no negotiation on OneWeb” and that the UK government is “in touch with other shareholders to discuss next steps”.

“In light of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we are reviewing our participation in all further projects involving Russian collaboration,” he added.

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The purchase of the government-owned OneWeb shares was signed off by prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak in June 2020, months after the satellite company filed for bankruptcy in the US.

The deal, estimated to be worth between £400 and £500 million of taxpayers’ money, was heavily criticised due to the lack of adequate technology provided by OneWeb, as the UK sought a post-Brexit replacement for the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation system.

It was also seen as symptomatic of politicians’ lack of tech knowledge and isolationist agenda by investing in a flailing company primarily due to the fact that it is based in the UK.

At just 1,200km above sea level, OneWeb’s 74 satellites are situated too low on the Earth’s orbit to provide the UK with the appropriate signal. In comparison, the EU’s Galileo system is located approximately 23,222km above land.

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