The Black Widow II is the hunter who lost to the F-22 Raptor


This has been a beacon of hope for Russia’s volatile space industry:

A contract, estimated at $ 1 billion, to launch 21 Soyuz rockets over the next two years carrying “micro-satellites” – as part of plans by an American company to provide high-speed Internet access in territories remote areas of the world, including parts of Siberia.

For the OneWeb company, the effort was seen as a critical step in building its “constellation of small satellites” and validation for investors who have invested nearly $ 2 billion. For Russian space agency Roskosmos, the contract was both a crucial source of private income and a starting point in the burgeoning global market for small-scale satellite launches.

Now, just a few months before the planned inaugural launch, it looks like the Federal Security Service (FSB) could put a stop to it altogether.

The daily Kommersant reported on November 13, 2018, that the FSB, Russia’s leading security and intelligence agency, has serious doubts about the micro-satellite project. Citing unnamed government officials, the newspaper said the FSB feared that having an internet provider whose signals were transmitted via satellite would prevent the agency from filtering and monitoring internet traffic.

Spy problems

In addition, sources told the newspaper, security officials feared satellites could be used to spy on sensitive Russian military sites.

The Kommersant report echoed a Reuters report, on October 24, 2018, which quoted an FSB official expressing specific concerns about satellite espionage.

Russia’s state-of-the-art rocket, the Soyuz, is launched primarily from Baikonur and Vostochny.

(photo by NASA)

In addition to questions about the continuation of the launch, the Interfax news agency reported that the general manager of the Roskosmos division which handles foreign business contracts, including the deal with OneWeb, was forced to resign after Roskosmos director Dmitry Rogozin ordered an inspection of the division.

Emails sent to both OneWeb and its launch provider, European aerospace giant Arianespace, were not immediately answered.

Founded by Greg Wyler, a former Google executive, OneWeb aims to place hundreds of satellites in low orbit above the Earth to provide data communication in remote locations. The company is one of many companies making the effort, but it attracted the largest amount of private funding, had started building assembly plants, and was closest to launching its satellites.

Key to the effort has been to secure a contract with Arianespace to organize the launches, using the Russian Soyuz rocket, launched mainly from Russian facilities in Baikonur and Vostochny, and several from the site owned by the European Space Agency. in Kourou, French Guiana.

When the contract was signed in 2015, the then President of Roskosmos hailed it as “proof of Russia’s competitiveness”. The first launch, of a Soyuz rocket carrying 10 micro-satellites, was scheduled for May 2018 from Kourou, but was then postponed until the end of the year. It is now set for February 2019.

Two years later, OneWeb formed a 60-40 percent joint venture with a Russian subsidiary of Roskosmos called Gonets which would manage Internet service in Russia.

In 2018, Wyler told industry publication Space News that the satellite network would in fact have ground stations, through which Internet traffic would be routed. But his comments suggested that there would not necessarily be ground stations in all countries where Internet service was available.

“What we’re hearing from regulators is that they want to know the physical path of their traffic and they want to make sure it lands in a place where they have control and management of that data, just like any other. Internet service provider in their country, ”Wyler was quoted as saying. “This doesn’t mean that the gateway has to be in their country, but it does mean that they have to know exactly which gateway their traffic will land at and they have to have the legal capacity to control the router at the entry point of their national network. From a regulatory point of view, inter-satellite links were highlighted as a major concern. “

Stricter control

In recent years, Russia has steadily tightened control and surveillance of the country’s once-completely free Internet. Part of that effort has been to control editorial content and, for example, prosecute people who share material on social media considered extremist under the country’s general anti-extremism laws.

But Russian regulators have also moved to tighten technical controls, forcing big tech and internet companies like Google or Facebook to physically host servers in Russia, giving Russian law enforcement a way to access them. This also includes the use of a system known as SORM, which is essentially a filter – a black box the size of an old video recorder – that allows Russian security agencies to intercept or eavesdrop. internet traffic.

The Black Widow II is the hunter who lost to the F-22 Raptor

Roskosmos’ contract with OneWeb would have enabled it to gain a foothold in the booming global market for small-scale satellite launches.

(photo by Roskosmos)

As late as October 26, 2018, Rogozin had discussions in Moscow with Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël about OneWeb, according to a statement posted on the Roskosmos website.

The meeting came two days after Reuters report on Russian objections. The report states that OneWeb and Gonets restructured their stakes in the joint venture to make Gonets the majority shareholder.

For observers of the global commercial satellite industry, the uncertainty over such a high-profile and well-funded project like OneWeb is tarnishing Roskosmos’ ability to be a competitive player in spaceflight in general.

Recent accident

One of Roskosmos’ other lucrative sources of income is his contract with the US space agency NASA for the astronauts shuttle to and from the International Space Station. But the recent incident involving a Soyuz rocket raised questions about Russian technology, which has been around for decades and was believed to be reliable.

Kazakhstan, home to Russia’s famous Baikonur Cosmodrome, recently said it had hired private U.S. company SpaceX to launch several of its own science satellites.

The uncertainty with OneWeb, said Carissa Christensen, founder and CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a Virginia-based research group specializing in the commercial space industry, could drive customers away from Roskosmos.

“It just disconnects Russia from some of the most active commercial space activities going on today, and it transfers potentially very desirable launch customers to other small launch providers,” she said.

In one opinion column Posted on November 15, 2018 for Russian business newspaper Vedomosti, contributor Valery Kodachigov scoffed at apparent FSB concerns that OneWeb satellites could be used to spy in Russia. But he also pooped the idea that OneWeb would be uniquely capable of bringing Internet service to the borders of Siberia or the Russian Arctic.

“The interference of Russian bureaucrats and security officials in the plans of prominent investors gives OneWeb’s story in Russia both scale and tragedy. But is it really that scary for OneWeb and Russian users who might find themselves without satellite internet? For now, one thing is clear: the people of Russia will not be left without mobile internet access, ”he wrote.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberté. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.

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