PARIS --- The severe sanctions against Moscow subsequent to the invasion of Ukraine have wreaked havoc among international space programs, in the form of launch disruptions, aborted programs and discontinued cooperations.
First, Western sanctions have scuttled several science missions – including ESA’s €1bn ExoMars and Euclid, DLR’s eROSITA/Spektr-RG, and NASA’s Venera-D– with the notable exception of the International Space Station (ISS) which continues operating as normal.
Several satellite launch programs were also impacted, the most prominent being 1 CSO French military observation, 4 Galileo navigation and 216 OneWeb communication satellites – all planned aboard Soyuz rockets. Indeed, since February 26 Moscow stopped all rocket launches from the European spaceport of Kourou, and repatriated its 90 employees present in French Guiana, putting Arianespace in a delicate commercial position.
The European Space Agency (ESA) officially recognized on March 17 the end of most collaborations with Roscomos. Consequently, OneWeb switched to SpaceX to launch its constellation into orbit. Beyond those immediate ruptures, both the United States and Europe will now have to manage a tricky transition period before their homegrown systems – whether engines, rockets, or equipment – are fully operational.
A limited impact on US launchers
In the US, this transition – although not expected that soon – was anticipated and planned. Notably, the switch from Russian made RD-180 rocket engines – manufactured by the NPO Energomash and used on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rockets for Pentagon missions – to BE-4 engines – homemade by Blue Origin to propel its own New Glenn as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket – will be accelerated.
While Roscosmos did halt deliveries of the RD-180 engines, ULA said on March 22 it expects Vulcan to fly “sometime this year”.
It’s tougher for Northrop Grumman (NG) and its Antares rocket, which will be used to fly the Cygnus cargo spacecraft to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). The company is “heavily dependent” on Ukraine input: while the rocket also uses Russian made RD-181 engines, a bigger problem lies within Antares’ entire 1st stage, which is designed by Yuzhnoye and built by Yuzhmash, the two main Ukrainian companies based in Dnipro, in the Eastern region of the country.
NG did not comment on potential Yuzhnoye supply chain disruptions, but the company has previously warned shareholders that “unstable geopolitical conditions, including in Russia and Ukraine,” are among its risks.” Thus, as long as Ukraine is under attack, NG could be forced to perform an extensive redesign and it is unclear how long Antares will live in its current form.
B. European launches on hold
1. Ariane: not ready yet…
In Europe, the transition will be more dramatic. Ariane 5 is no longer and both Ariane 6 and Vega C on a tightrope, putting Arianespace at odds with some customers. The company will have to deal with this tricky situation without the Soyuz cover, which was considered as “the natural back-up for Ariane 6 or even Vega C”. Some say that this could be an opportunity to the new German small launchers (Isar Aerospace’s Spectrum, Rocket Factory Augsburg’s RFA One, or HyImpulse Technologies’ SL1 rockets)…
2. Vega: ready, and yet…
Beyond Soyuz, European space programs are also directly hit with disruption suffered by key Ukrainian suppliers.
The first is Vega C, the latest variant of Italian manufacturer Avio’s Vega light launcher, due to enter service this year. The first stage of this uprated variant is powered by the AVUM (Attitude & Vernier Upper Module) engine, also designed by Yuzhnoye and produced by Yuzhmash. Avio, now a subsidiary of the US engine manufacturer General Electric, told investors that its maiden flight is still scheduled for May, to put the LARES 2 satellite for the Italian space agency (ASI) into orbit.
But even if the flight is flawless, the real issue will be the subsequent Vega launches. Apparently, only three engines have already been delivered to Avio, and three others were being manufactured by Yuzhmash before the Russian invasion. The fate of those additional RD-843 engines, as well as of the rest of the factory is unclear.
“We are in daily contact with our colleagues in Yuzhmash, and we are assessing the availability for the coming months," Daniel Neuenschwander, director of space transportation at ESA, said on March 18. Falling back to an equivalent engine is always a possibility, and Neuenschwander explains that he would prefer to find an engine designed in an ESA member state that could be quickly adapted to the second stage of Vega C.
This would notably be the case for the M10 engine, developed by Avio for Vega E, the successor to Vega C scheduled for 2025. "But ESA is “also studying non-European options” that would have “the right degree of maturity.” In the end, “the choice will come down to who will be ready the earliest,” Neuenschwander said. Anyhow, Avio, Arianespace and the ESA will have to find an answer quickly, because Vega C launch schedule is fairly busy with 15 launches in 2022, 2023 and early 2024,
C. The remaining Ukrainian potential
The Ukrainian space industry is mostly concentrated within the Kyiv-Kharkiv-Dnipro triangle. The latter in particular, located 400 km southeast of Kyiv and with close to a million people in normal times, is a key area for the industry. During the Soviet era, many Ukrainian scientists, engineers and designers were based there to contribute to the success of the USSR space programs. Dnipro is the place where the first Soviet nuclear missile, the R-5 Pobeda ("Victory"), was designed and assembled in great secrecy. That is also why the Dnipro National University has maintained a strong aeronautical engineering department until today.
1. Yuzhnoye: six feet under?
When the USSR was dismembered, the Ukrainian state kept both Yuzhmash (Южмаш) rocket factory – known for its Zenit rocket- and the Yuzhnoye (Ю́жное) design bureau, which still operate and continue to manufacture launchers and rocket propulsion systems under their new Ukrainian names, Pivdenmach (Південмаш) and Pivdenne (Південне) respectively.
Last month, on March 11, Russia launched airstrikes on the southern suburbs of Dnipro, severely damaging infrastructure, and destroying the regional airport runway. But so far, there was no reported attack on the space cluster in and around the city. According to most local observers, this is because Russian forces want to get hold of them at some point, and use them to their own profit. But to our knowledge, Russia – unlike the West – does not depend on Ukrainian suppliers anymore for national space programs.
On April 15, Boris Filatov, the mayor of Dnipro, acknowledged the plant “has not made rockets for a long time,” although it continues to work on certain subsystems, sometimes in degraded mode, or in reduced working time, due to war and curfew restrictions. A number of employees ensures that operations continue, and if necessary, a “temporary relocation” could be considered, Filatov said
2. Other space locations
Dnipro also hosts several space start-ups. One of them is Promin Aerospace, where a dozen engineers work on a lightweight (100kg) autophagic (i.e. “self-eating”) rocket using solid fuel as propellant. It is due to perform a suborbital launch trial this November, an initial commercial suborbital flight in 2023, and a commercial orbital flight in 2024/2025. Promin is said to work closely with the two big state-run players. As reported by SpaceNews, the company has an office in Kiev and its co-founders Misha Rudominsky and Vitaly Yemets stand ready to move everyone in the Western part of the country if need be.
Within the Ukrainian space triangle, let’s also mention the Kyiv Radio plant, created in 2003, based on old electro-mechanical railway workshops established in Kiev before WW2, and now also active in the space domain, through equipment design and manufacturing, R&D, experiments, communication, and signal processing.
Also based in Kyiv is the State-owned Arsenal Factory, an integral part of the country’s historical military-industrial complex, founded in… 1764, and which is now active – along other military activities – in various space-based optics and infrared sensors.
In Kiev, other space startups are active such as Kurs Orbital, founded in 1985 by Volodymyr Usov, former chairman of the Ukrainian Space Agency (SSAU), which designs reusable on-orbit servicing platforms, based on the soviet-era KURS automatic rendez-vous system. In 2021, the company was planning to launch a demonstration vehicle in 2023….(Usov also founded in the UK an innovative on-demand Air-Launch System under the name of OrbitBoy
Closer to the border, Kharkiv – another historical space and missile industry cluster – also hosts a number of space players, such as Hartron, Kommunar Production Association , and Instrument-Making Research Technological Institute). But the city has already been targeted by Russian missiles, and the recent offensive launched by Russian forces in the Donbass will make it more vulnerable to strikes in the foreseeable future
3. Foreign start-ups: lost opportunities
Beyond Ukrainian main entities, over the past few years, many foreign players – from Europe and North America, have settled production and research facilities locally. This is notably the case of Rocket Factory Augsburg AG from Germany (engine components), Skyrora Ltd. from Britain (R&D teams), Maritime Launch Services Ltd. from Canada (launch services using Ukrainian-made Cyclone-4M rockets), Launcher Inc. from California (engine R&D and support teams), Italspazio from Italy (satcom, teleports and geoinformation) or Firefly Aerospace Inc. from Texas (R&D centre).
Each of these companies employ dozens of engineers, technicians, and other staff in Ukraine. For example, Skyrora Ltd., a startup founded in 2017 and developing the Skylark family of rockets, recruited rocket engineers from Dnipro “for their technical skills and because they’re many times less expensive to employ than their counterparts in the U.S. or Western Europe.” The company has now 80 people on its payroll in Ukraine – about half of its workforce.
While waiting to be called up for eventual combat, most of its employees continue to work. “From the first day, the factory was fully functional, and it still is,” notes Volodymyr Levykin, Skyrora’s CEO. That said, other companies, like Launcher Inc., have relocated employees in other European countries since the beginning of the war.
Just as the European space apparatus was more dependent on Russian rockets and technology than its US counterpart, Europe through Avio’s role in Vega is also more dependent on Ukraine’s technology.
But, considering the exactions of Putin’s regime, getting rid of as much Russian gear and expertise as possible is a matter of sovereignty, as well as a political stance. In the case of Ukraine, the sovereignty issue remains, but keeping cooperation and space trade as active as possible would also send a very clear economic and political signal to the nation.