Will war ground the space industry?
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 remained undelivered. Yet this East-West delinking might also provide a new impetus for growth.
Russia regularly sends both humans and satellites up on their Soyuz rockets. “Their expertise in human spaceflight is especially strong,” says Claude Rousseau, research director at Northern Sky Research, a space consultancy firm. Ukraine’s position is less important, yet the country has a sizable space industry. Elon Musk even declared that the Ukraine-designed Zenit rocket family was a personal favourite of his.
When Russia invaded its neighbour Ukraine on February 24, that not only disrupted the lives of millions on earth, it also nearly got someone stuck in space. Concerns arose that US astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who had just broken the record for longest human spaceflight, was stranded onboard the International Space Station (ISS). A Russian news report had suggested he wouldn’t be taken down on a Russian rocket as previously agreed, in response to heavy sanctions imposed on Russia. Eventually, Russia said it would honour its commitment, and Vande Hei is scheduled to return to earth on March 30.
When sanctions hit the Russian space industry, and the war shut down its Ukrainian counterparts, the global ripple effects 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 Mars Rover project was suspended after falling out with its Russian partners. And Russia halted the delivery of rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed.
“Russia provides fairly cheap, ready-made launch services,” says Professor Ram Jakhu, of the McGill Institute of Air and Space Law. “Now that option is disappearing for many.”
One company that is 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 off for now. Yet, according to Cappaert, the direct effects of the war on their business have been relatively limited. Spire, like most Western companies, had already stopped using Russian rockets after previous rounds of sanctions related to Ukraine and does not have any subcontractors in the affected region.
The main shift for Spire is that the data its satellites collect are in high demand right now. “The conflict showed yet again how important satellite data are,” says Cappaert.
Since the start of the conflict, companies like Spire have been inundated with requests for data from companies, governments, and NGOs. Spire mainly collects radio frequency data, which gives insights into ship and plane movements, but also weather patterns. Others that focus on images from space – offering insights into subjects like troop movements, economic activity and refugee streams – have also been in demand in the last few weeks. Spire has even been working with competitors to offer data for free to better manage and coordinate humanitarian aid.
The current delinking of Eastern and Western space industries is part of a longer process. NASA severed its Russian ties in 2014, apart from those related to the ISS, and Russia had already banned the export of rocket engines for a while after sanctions related to its annexation of Crimea. Many companies ended their Russian ties in the years before the latest invasion, which makes those that did not seem like the odd ones out.
“OneWeb knew what they were getting into,” says Rousseau. “They knew the risks, but they didn’t make a decision in time. So now they had to do something drastic and cancel their launches.”
This conflict might be the last straw needed to remove reliance on Russian rocketry for many countries. “Countries will now double down on their launch capabilities,” says Rousseau. “They don’t want to be in the situation where their Soyuz launch is suddenly cancelled.” India has, for example, grown its launch capacities, he explains, Japan’s H-IIA rockets are doing quite well on 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 going up and state investment might also increase to reduce reliance on Russian supply chains. “Space is a strategic capacity,” Rousseau says. “And during times of war, governments tend to double down on those.”
War or diplomacy
For all the economic disruption so far, the war has not extended to space, but it remains a possibility. Russia – as well as the US – possesses anti-satellite weapons, which it tested a few months before the Ukraine war. Taking out a satellite in space would create a cloud of debris that could damage other satellites. It would also represent a grave escalation if NATO or Russian satellites are targeted.
“It would be an act of war,” says Jakhu. “A war in space equals a war on earth.”
But space might 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.”
Central to that cooperation might be the ISS, on which Mark Vande Hei seemed to have gotten stuck for a short while. “The ISS is too beneficial for both sides to abandon,” concludes Rousseau. “Even throughout all the previous crises, that programme was the one that continued. The conflict is now one step more intense, but I think the cooperation will survive.”