No 10 said he was ‘monitoring’ the situation surrounding the launch of a Russian-linked satellite by a digital company in which the UK government has a stake.
It comes after a senior lawmaker questioned whether OneWeb’s collaboration with Russia’s space agency to launch new broadband satellites was appropriate given Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
The UK took a £400million stake in the bankrupt digital company to save it from bankruptcy almost two years ago, allowing it to continue its part in the race to broadcast the Internet access around the world from satellites in low Earth orbit.
Friday’s scheduled launch of 36 satellites in Kazakhstan will use Russian rockets and be overseen by Russian space experts, according to Labor MP Darren Jones.
The chairman of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee questioned whether the collaboration was “inappropriate” given Russia’s attack on its neighbour.
Downing Street said it was “fair” that questions were being raised about “space cooperation” with Moscow, but that the UK government was “talking to our partners” involved in the project before saying more.
The taxpayer-funded investment in OneWeb in July 2020 bought a “significant stake” in the company, as part of a consortium with India’s Bharti Global, after a bidding war.
In a letter to Science Minister George Freeman on March 1, Mr Jones said the communications company was set to launch the satellites from Russia’s “Baikonur Cosmosdrome on Russian Soyuz rockets in partnership with the agency Russian space station Roscosmos”.
According to reports, the launch is scheduled for Friday at 10:41 p.m. UK time.
Mr Jones, MP for Bristol North West, asked Mr Freeman whether he ‘considers this to be inappropriate given the current situation’ and whether the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ‘has intends to intervene by engaging with the OneWeb Board of Directors in its capacity as a significant shareholder”.
He also asked if the department was “helping” the company find “alternative rocket launch availability.”
Downing Street must have wondered on Wednesday whether the UK government had approved the launch.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: “It is absolutely right that questions about space cooperation with Russia should be raised after their invasion.
“We are still carefully monitoring this situation as it relates to OneWeb.
“We are talking to our partners and will define the next steps, but I don’t know more at this time.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng tweeted: “There is no trading on OneWeb: the UK government is not selling its share.
“We are in contact with other shareholders to discuss next steps…”
Insisting on how the launch could go ‘credibly’ given that the launch involved ‘borrowing Putin’s rockets’, the No 10 official said: ‘I don’t want to preempt any other decisions .”
The Prime Minister’s former chief aide, Dominic Cummings, is believed to have influenced the UK’s decision to invest in OneWeb.
With satellite internet services being less straightforward to disable than terrestrial signals, Mr Cummings suggested this week that situations such as the one unfolding in Ukraine were driving government thinking when buying, as this would allow broadband services to continue in conflict areas.
Responding to businessman Elon Musk making his Starlink satellite service available to Ukraine following the Russian advance, Ms Cummings tweeted: ‘The ability to do this sort of thing was one of the reasons why we’ve been discussing making OneWeb summer 2020 – this could be a powerful new capability for the UK.