Watch This Space
U.S. sanctions could delay commercial launches on Proton and other Russian rockets.
A version of this article appears in the May 5 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
As the Obama administration ratchets up sanctions against Moscow, U.S. reliance on Russian space hardware is under increasing political scrutiny.
Although Washington has limited political and economic influence over Moscow, recent actions in all three branches of the U.S. government bring the potential to disrupt supply chains across the spectrum of global space manufacturing—from Russian ion-propulsion thrusters flying on U.S.-built satellites to the NPO Energomash RD-180 engine that powers the first stage of’s Atlas 5 rocket.
More broadly, Western governments are questioning regular use of Russian and Ukrainian launch vehicles to send commercial and government payloads to orbit, notably atop the Proton, Soyuz, Zenit and Dnepr rockets that routinely launch U.S. and European spacecraft.
In April the Commerce and State departments said they would deny license approvals for high-technology exports that could benefit Russia’s military—categories that restrict export of commercial communications satellites and related components on the U.S. Munitions List.
In addition, “Those departments also will revoke any existing export licenses that meet these conditions,” the White House said in an April 28 statement.
For now, it is unclear how Western satellite manufacturers and operators will be affected by the ban. Industry officials say they might be unable to obtain U.S. export licenses for shipping spacecraft to launch providers representing Russian interests.
These include International Launch Services (ILS), which markets commercial missions of the Khrunichev-built Proton M/Briz M; Sea Launch, which operates Zenit rockets from an ocean-based platform in international waters;Glavkosmos, a secondary payload launch provider within the Russian federal space program; ISC Kosmotras, which launches small satellites on converted ICBMs from Russian soil; and Eurockot, which manages commercial Rokot launches.
The sanctions, which expand on announcements in March that thewould suspend export license approvals of defense articles and services to Russia, could affect a handful of ILS Proton missions scheduled this year. So far, ILS says, the company has seen no impact to its manifest, which includes the launch this summer of the SES Astra 2G commercial communications satellite.
“This is a new development that we are closely monitoring and we will, as necessary, actively engage with the relevant parties to properly understand the situation,” said SES spokesman Yves Feltes last week. “At this time, we have no change to the Astra 2G launch schedule due to this situation.”
Other Proton missions this year include London-based fleet operator Inmarsat’s second and third Global Xpress mobile communications spacecraft, and the Mexican government’s Mexsat-1 satellite, all of which will require U.S. export licenses before shipping their hardware for launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
Less clear is the impact of the ban on European launch consortium Arianespace, which markets commercial missions of Russia’s medium-lift Soyuz rocket from French territory in South America.
Arianespace says it does not anticipate problems launching upcoming Soyuz missions at the European spaceport this year. Included on the schedule are four communications satellites owned by fleet operator O3b and built by Franco-Italian joint venture, and the European Commission’s first two full-operational-capability Galileo navigation and timing spacecraft, built by OHB AG of Germany. All of these spacecraft incorporate U.S.-controlled components.
Other launches in the pipeline include the Skysat-2 remote-sensing spacecraft built by California-based Skybox Imaging, which will be launched as a secondary payload on a Soyuz from Baikonur and Korea’s Kompsat-3a, an Earth-observation satellite built with help fromDefense and Space that is slated to launch on Dnepr.
Beyond the potential for delays in shipping spacecraft, the ban affects the ability of launch-service providers to market their products. Western satellite operators and manufacturers need U.S. technical assistance agreements just to discuss potential service agreements with Russian launch vehicle providers. Consequently, the export license ban has the potential to put ILS and Sea Launch at least temporarily out of business.
Given the political risk, it becomes a challenging environment to sell in, a launch industry source said.
In April, ILS said it has “all the necessary U.S. State Department authorizations in place to execute manifested launches through 2016” and that new licenses will be “adjudicated” on a case-by-case basis by the State Department.
“None of the current U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against Russian individuals and entities have an impact on our business,” ILS spokeswoman Karen Rose Monaghan said April 29.
But while the U.S. ban has not yet resulted in a canceled or delayed launch on a Russian rocket, in April the Canadian government blocked the upcoming June launch of its M3M maritime surveillance spacecraft on a Russian Soyuz from Baikonur, and is actively looking for an alternative launcher.
Meanwhile, Ukraine, which provides rocket technology to European and U.S. launch vehicles, is continuing to conduct business as usual, although the potential impact to Western launch service providers persists.
For now, the Dnipropetrovsk-based Yuzhnoye Design Office is still producing engines and hardware for customers in the U.S., Brazil, Europe and Russia. Yuzhnoye officials point out that they have survived political tensions in the past, notably the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Recent events are a concern, but our modus operandi is international commerce, which allows flexibility and gives us opportunities,” Yuzhnoye’s Oleg Ventskovsky said during the 2014 Space Access conference here. “Up to now we have seen no effect on our business.”
Yuzhnoye produces the Zenit 3SL rocket launched by Russian-owned Sea Launch International, which lofts commercial payloads from a floating platform in international waters. Yuzhnoye also provides engine components to Europe’s Vega light launcher and develops the first-stage core of the. Antares rocket that is powered by two Russian NK-33 engines.
At the other end of the industry spectrum, U.S. officials are questioning the nation’s reliance on Russian rocket hardware to launch sensitive national security payloads for the. Draft legislation circulating in the U.S. House of Representatives could block the use of the RD-180 engine that powers the first stage of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 as early as this year. This language comes as Hawthorne, Calif.-based sues the U.S. Air Force in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims for the right to compete for launches of national security payloads now sole-sourced to ULA.
In response to the lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that U.S. sanctions against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s space and defense industries, should effectively bar any future purchases of the RD-180 by the U.S. Air Force or ULA. Rogozin is one of the 48 nationals sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for the roles they played in Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in March.
In a temporary injunction issued April 30, the judge argued that Rogozin is profiting in some manner from exports of the engine to American interests, a move that brings the potential to broaden application of U.S. sanctions.
While such developments could boost SpaceX’s chances against ULA, industry officials say any effort to block the use of Russian space technology in U.S. hardware could have broader knock-on effects with regard to Washington’s space ties with Russia.
In an April 11 letter to House lawmakers, the Satellite Industry Association () decried attempts by lawmakers to curb U.S. reliance on Russian hardware in space systems. SIA argued that while draft legislation appears to target the RD-180 specifically, it could easily be broadened to include the U.S.-modified Kuznetsov-built NK-33 engines that power the Ukrainian-built boost stage of the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares, as well as other Russian space hardware.
“We have little confidence that such policies would not expand eventually to capture any number of other Russian technologies, whether through Congressional expansion or Russian retaliatory actions,” a draft of the letter asserts.
The pressure to reduce U.S. reliance on Russian rocket technology is also playing to commercial interests: SpaceX is using anti-Russian sentiment in an attempt to unseat ULA, asserting its Falcon 9 rocket is the only politically, technically and financially sound option for launching national security missions.Rocketdyne, on the other hand, would be the likely beneficiary of any congressionally directed proposal to fund development of a replacement for the RD-180, a scenario now being reviewed under an Air Force-directed study led by retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, former head of operations and currently vice president of program assessments for the Aerospace Corp., and former Administrator Michael Griffin. Due in May, the RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study will look at scenarios for ensuring the availability of RD-180 engines, as well as at long-term mitigation options for meeting launch requirements without it.
In the meantime, as some U.S. companies seize on the political momentum against Russia, closing off space ties with Moscow could have unintended consequences. Analysts argue such maneuvers could push Russia closer to China and India in the area of space cooperation, potentially undermining U.S. non-proliferation objectives. Such efforts also run counter to the Obama administration’s argument for continuing the ISS through 2024. But if Russian participation in the program ends before then, winning continued European or Japanese support could prove challenging.
“The more the U.S. plays to the domestic argument here, the more it makes international partners question their investment in what could become America’s domestic-only civil space program,” a U.S. policy analyst says.