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Will the Ukraine war ground the space industry?

Private and state investments in space may increase to reduce reliance on Russian supply chains.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover vehicle lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, USA
The global space industry has been disrupted since Russia invaded Ukraine

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.”

Long-term delinking
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.

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