Brussels, Belgium – Russia and Ukraine are important nodes in the global space industry, nodes that have been disrupted by the recent war and the sanctions that followed. Launches have been cancelled, Mars rovers have been grounded, and engines have not been delivered. However, this East-West decoupling could also provide a new impetus for growth.
Russia regularly sends humans and satellites on its Soyuz rockets. “Their experience in human spaceflight is especially strong,” says Claude Rousseau, director of research at Northern Sky Research, a space consulting firm. Ukraine’s position is less important, but the country has a sizeable space industry. Elon Musk even declared that the Ukraine-designed Zenit family of rockets was one of his favorites.
When Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine on February 24, it not only turned the lives of millions of people on Earth upside down, it almost left someone trapped in space. Concerns were raised that American astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who had just broken the record for the longest manned spaceflight, was stranded aboard the International Space Station (ISS). A Russian news report suggested that it would not be shot down in a Russian rocket as previously agreed, in response to heavy sanctions imposed on Russia. Russia eventually said it would honor its commitment, and Vande Hei is scheduled to return to earth on March 30.
As sanctions hit the Russian space industry and the war shut down its Ukrainian counterparts, the global ripple effect hit many companies, scientists and governments. OneWeb, a UK space constellation, was forced to cancel the launch of its satellites on Russian rockets. The European ESA The Mars Rover project was suspended after falling out with his Russian partners. And Russia has halted the delivery of rocket engines to the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed.
“Russia provides fairly cheap, off-the-shelf launch services,” says Professor Ram Jakhu of the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law. “Now that option is disappearing for many.”
One company facing this fracture is Spire Global, a US-listed Earth observation company that owns a constellation of more than 100 satellites. “The war has been a wake-up call,” says Jeroen Cappaert, CTO and co-founder of Spire.
Spire had previously launched its satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets, a launch opportunity that is closed for now. However, according to Cappaert, the direct effects of the war on his business have been relatively limited. Spire, like most Western companies, had already stopped using Russian rockets after previous rounds of Ukraine-related sanctions and has no subcontractors in the affected region.
The main change for Spire is that the data its satellites collect is in high demand right now. “The conflict once again demonstrated how important satellite data is,” says Cappaert.
Since the beginning of the conflict, companies like Spire have been inundated with requests for data from companies, governments and NGOs. Spire primarily collects radio frequency data, which provides information on the movements of ships and planes, but also on weather patterns. Others that focus on images from space, offering insights into topics such as troop movements, economic activity and refugee flows, have also been in demand in recent weeks. Spire has even been working with competitors to offer data for free to better manage and coordinate humanitarian aid.
The current decoupling of the Eastern and Western space industries is part of a larger process. NASA severed its ties with Russia in 2014, in addition to those related to the ISS, and Russia had already banned the export of rocket engines for a time after sanctions related to its annexation of Crimea. Many companies severed ties with Russia in the years before the last invasion, leaving the ones that didn’t seem out of the picture.
“OneWeb knew what it was getting into,” says Rousseau. “They knew the risks, but they did not make a decision in time. So now they had to do something drastic and cancel their releases.”
This conflict could be the last straw needed to eliminate dependence on Russian rockets for many countries. “Countries will now double their launch capabilities,” says Rousseau. “They don’t want to be in the situation where their Soyuz launch is suddenly cancelled.” India, for example, has increased its launch capacity, he explains, Japan’s H-IIA rockets are doing quite well in the commercial market, and new players like Rocket Lab are growing.
He even predicts growth, not recession, in the space industry as a result of the conflict. Private investments are increasing and state investment could also increase to reduce dependency on Russian supply chains. “Space is a strategic capability,” says Rousseau. “And in times of war, governments tend to redouble those efforts.”
war or diplomacy
Despite all the economic disruption thus far, the war has not spilled over into space, but it remains a possibility. Russia, like the US, possesses anti-satellite weapons, which it tested a few months before the Ukraine war. Shooting down a satellite in space would create a cloud of debris that could damage other satellites. It would also represent a serious escalation if NATO or Russian satellites are attacked.
“It would be an act of war,” says Jakhu. “A war in space is equal to a war on earth.”
But space could also be an environment in which cooperation between Russia and the West can continue. “In space, countries have no choice but to cooperate with each other, even during war,” says Jakhu. “Diplomacy will have to continue.”
The center of that cooperation could be the ISS, on which Mark Vande Hei seemed to have been stuck for a short time. “The ISS is too beneficial for both parties to abandon it,” Rousseau concludes. “Even during all the previous crises, that program was the one that continued. The conflict is now one step more intense, but I think the cooperation will survive.”