Space agency holds satellites to ransom as Ukraine tensions intensify

As global tensions escalate in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the UK government and Russia’s space agency are involved in a stand-off after Roscosmos effectively seized a number OneWeb satellite.

The move, which the agency said will only be resolved if its ransom demands are met, comes as Roscosmos was said to have fallen victim to a cyber attack by hacktivist group Anonymous.

The agency was set to launch the satellites today but the head of the Russian Space Agency, Dmitry Rogozin, announced that OneWeb needs to guarantee that the satellites won’t be used for military purposes and that the British Government, has to withdraw its substantial investment in the firm.

The OneWeb project has been designed to create a network of satellites in low-Earth orbit to deliver internet via space. It has launched a total of 428 satellites on Soyuz rockets, with the latest batch of 36 at the Russia-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ready for lift off.

Chris McLaughlin, OneWeb’s chief of government, regulation and engagement, said this was an “unprecedented situation”. OneWeb currently has an undisclosed number of staff at Baikonur overseeing the launch, and the company had hoped for it to go ahead so they could safely leave.

“Their safety, and our technology’s security, are of the utmost focus to us,” says McLaughlin. “The best outcome would have been for the satellites to launch.”

Rogozin gave a media interview in which he said he wanted assurances from OneWeb that the company’s satellites will not be used for military purposes. Roscosmos also demanded that the British government, which is a primary shareholder in OneWeb, divest its stake in the company. If these demands aren’t met, Roscosmos said it will roll back the Soyuz rocket, and the launch would not go ahead.

The threat has brought a swift response from the UK government. Secretary of state for business Kwasi Kwarteng, took to Twitter to say the country would not bow to the demands.

He said: “There’s no negotiation on OneWeb: the UK Government is not selling its share,”

It is part of an increasing split between Roscosmos  and the rest of the international space community. Rogozin has already threatened to pull Russia out of the International Space Station (ISS), a move he said would signal the end of the project in its entirety.

Roscosmos has also moved its personnel and equipment out of Kourou, in French Guyana, the location of the European Space Port.

As the row erupted hacking group Anonymous announced it had shut down Russia’s space agency so that Vladimir Putin ‘no longer has control over spy satellites’ amid his invasion of Ukraine.

Network Battalion 65 or ‘NB65’, which is affiliated with Anonymous, posted a tweet claiming to show server information for Roscosmos.

They said they had downloaded and deleted confidential files related to the space agency’s satellite imaging and Vehicle Monitoring System.

However this was swiftly denied with Rogozin saying that the agency was fully operational.

The OneWeb project has been designed to create a network of satellites in low-Earth orbit to deliver internet via space. It has launched a total of 428 satellites on Soyuz rockets, with the latest batch of 36 at the Russia-operated Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ready for lift off.

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