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Soyuz OneWeb launch
A Soyuz rocket launches a batch of OneWeb satellites in late 2021. With Soyuz no longer available, OneWeb has had to turn to a competitor, SpaceX, to launch its satellites. (credit: Arianespace)

The launch market squeeze

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If politics makes strange bedfellows, then geopolitics makes strange business relationships, as OneWeb and SpaceX revealed last week.

In a move that was both shocking and predictable, OneWeb announced last Monday that it had signed an agreement to launch some of its satellites on SpaceX rockets. Shocking, because the two companies are archrivals in the broadband satellite megaconstellation market, working as fast as they can to deploy their satellites and offer service globally. Predictable, because OneWeb had few, if any, other options for deploying the rest of its fleet when it suspended use of the Soyuz rocket after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a month earlier.

“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision for the boundless potential of space,” Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb, said in a statement. “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.”

“We’re delighted that SpaceX certainly stepped up and we appreciate that,” said OneWeb’s Masterson.

OneWeb offered no other details about its launch agreement with SpaceX, including the number of launches or the cost, other than the first launch “is anticipated in 2022.” OneWeb had six more Soyuz launches, each carrying about three dozen satellites, remaining to complete its constellation when it suspended its launch plans. That came after Russia made demands that OneWeb’s satellites not be used for military purposes and that the British government divest its stake in the company. A set of satellites remains stuck at the Baikonur Cosmodrome after its launch was called off in early March.

“We were caught essentially in a geopolitical situation,” Masterson said on a panel at the Satellite 2022 conference in Washington a day after this company announced its agreement with SpaceX. “We’re delighted that SpaceX certainly stepped up and we appreciate that.”

He dodged questions about the specifics of the contract, though, as did another executive on the sidelines of the conference, who only said that OneWeb was in talks with other launch providers as well.

OneWeb is not alone in struggling to find alternative launches because of the effective withdrawal of the Soyuz from the global launch market. When Russia announced it would no longer conduct Soyuz launches from French Guiana, it stranded five European government missions: two launches of pairs of Galileo navigation satellites, ESA’s Euclid astronomy mission and EarthCARE Earth science mission, and a French military reconnaissance satellite.

At a press briefing after a meeting of the ESA Council March 17, agency leaders said they had not made any decisions about how to launch those stranded payloads. “We will look into all the options,” said Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general. “We need to make sure that we have a robust launcher setup that can launch our satellites.”

ESA is also looking into a new launch for its ExoMars mission, which was to launch in September on a Proton. ESA announced at that council meeting that it was suspending cooperation with Roscosmos on ExoMars, requiring the agency to find not just a new launch but also replace other Russian components, including the landing platform that would have delivered ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover to the surface and instruments on the rover itself.

That will delay the mission by at least four years. “It will not be before 2026, realistically,” Aschbacher said of the revised ExoMars launch date. “Even that is very challenging.”

The challenge facing ESA and OneWeb and a handful of other Soyuz customers, like the European weather satellite agency Eumetsat and the South Korean government, is that there is little available launch capacity globally among larger launch vehicles. Despite all the handwringing about a glut of small launchers, there is precious little capacity to support new customers with the withdrawal of Russian launch vehicles and continued exclusion of Chinese vehicles for Western satellites.

“We’re very pleased with where the BE-4 is and we expect to fly this year as a result,” Bruno said.

That capacity crunch comes from a delayed transition to a new generation of launch vehicles (see “New year, new (and overdue) rockets”, The Space Review, January 10, 2022). Four new large launch vehicles were expected to be in service by now—Ariane 6, H3, New Glenn, and Vulcan Centaur—but none of those vehicles have made an inaugural launch.

At a Satellite 2022 panel last week, Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, said Vulcan was still on track for a first launch later this year. The schedule of that vehicle has been paced by the development and testing of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine that will power Vulcan’s first stage.

Bruno said he expected to receive the first flight models of the BE-4 engine by the middle of the year. “We’re very pleased with where the BE-4 is and we expect to fly this year as a result,” he said.

The engine is still undergoing testing, including a series of firings at Blue Origin’s West Texas test site that also hosts New Shepard launches. Jarrett Jones, senior vice president of New Glenn at Blue Origin, said during the panel that the company had recorded more than 18,000 seconds of run time on the BE-4 as final qualification tests of the engine nears.

Despite the extensive delays in the engine, Bruno said he was satisfied with the engine itself. “The engine is in great shape,” he said. “It is performing better than I anticipated.”

ULA is still flying the Atlas 5, which is not affected by Russian sanctions: the company secured all the RD-180 engines it needs for its remaining missions. The problem, though, is that all of those missions are sold to government and commercial customers, meaning ULA can’t offer the Atlas 5 to others now looking for alternative access to space. The company declined to bid on the launch of the GOES-U weather satellite last year even though it won contracts for its three predecessors, GOES-R, -S, and -T, because of a lack of available vehicles; GOES-U will instead launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.

Arianespace, which marketed the Soyuz to customers like OneWeb in addition to Europe’s own Ariane and Vega rockets, is working to adjust to the new reality. “2022 will be very different for us from what we were supposed to do,” Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël said on the panel. “We are working very closely with our customers to accommodate the best solutions for them.”

He did not discuss what the company is doing with OneWeb, but said he hopes to shift the stranded European institutional payloads to Ariane 6 and Vega C, two new rockets scheduled to make their first flights this year. He particularly suggested that Ariane 6 could launch the Galileo satellites in 2023. “Ariane 6 has been designed to launch Galileo satellites,” he said. “Ariane 6 can launch these satellites in 2023.”

ESA officials have also expressed their desire to launch European payloads on European vehicles, but have not announced any decisions yet. While Vega C is expected to make its inaugural launch in May, ESA has yet to set a date for the first Ariane 6 launch, preferring to wait until the vehicle completes tests this spring.

The agency has at least left the door open for using the first Ariane 6 launch, currently slated to carry a mass demonstrator and a handful of rideshare payloads, for one of the missions that was to fly on Soyuz. “It’s not the baseline, to be clear, to use this launch for one of the payloads,” said Daniel Neuenschwander, ESA’s director of space transportation, at the briefing after the ESA Council meeting. “But, we are assessing it and we will come back with a clear assessment and a proposal to our member states.”

Use of the Vega C is complicated by the fact that the rocket’s fourth stage uses the RD-843 engine produced by Ukrainian company Yuzhmash. Neuenschwander said that there are three such engines in storage in Europe for use on the Vega C launches planned for this year, and that ESA was looking at options to replace that engine if needed for later missions. Avio, the prime contractor for Vega, said in a statement Friday there were no issues for Vega launches for the “medium term” but declined to disclose how many engines it had available.

That engine will ultimately be replaced by M10, a methane-liquid oxygen engine under devleopment in Europe, for the Vega E around the middle of the decade. Israël said there was “no need” to accelerate work on that engine, and that “backup solutions in Europe” could replace the RD-843 if required.

“I look at them as my friend that I can talk to and bump off as needed,” SpaceX’s Ochinero said of Starlink.

The Japanese space agency JAXA and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have said little recently about progress on the H3. It has been delayed by ongoing problems with the new main engine for the vehicle, putting a debut this year in doubt. The H-2A is headed for retirement with few, if any, vehicles available for other customers.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has acknowledged that New Glenn won’t make its debut this year. Jones, speaking at the Satellite 2022 panel, said that qualification of various elements of the vehicle is ongoing, it had run out of runway to be ready in time for an inaugural launch in 2022.

He declined to give a new target for a first launch because the company was still in discussions with customers about the revised schedule. “It will not be at the end of this year,” he said.

That leaves SpaceX as the only launch provided with room to accommodate additional customers like OneWeb. Tom Ochinero, vice president of commercial sales at SpaceX, declined to say exactly how much room it has in its manifest for additional launches, saying it maintains a “more fluid and flexible” approach to managing its upcoming launches.

Part of that flexibility, he said, comes from having “reserve slots” on the manifest as well as changes caused when other customers need to reschedule their launches because of delays with their payloads. Another part comes from the fact that the biggest Falcon 9 customer is SpaceX itself, through its Starlink launches.

“I look at them as my friend that I can talk to and bump off as needed,” he said of Starlink. “They can move or give up their vehicles. I’ve got a lot of flexibility there.”

This constraint in supply of larger launch vehicles is short-lived. Within the next couple of years, the Ariane 6, H3, New Glenn, and Vulcan should all be flying—not to mention, of course, SpaceX’s own Starship, which together could turn a shortage of vehicles into a glut.

Others are developing vehicles that could fill in the niche abandoned by the Soyuz in the medium-class market, like Firefly’s Beta, Relativity’s Terran R, and Rocket Lab’s Neutron, which are slated to enter service as soon as mid-decade. “It will accelerate our look at the entire marketplace,” Jason Mello, president of Firefly Space Transportation Services, said of the withdrawal of Soyuz during a separate Satellite 2022 panel.

In the meantime, though, anyone needing a launch soon who hadn’t already booked a ride may have just one place to go, provided SpaceX is willing to bump another Starlink launch or two.

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