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Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Harmed the Global Space Industry

Mihir Tripathy
Keenon Ferrell
December 13, 202211:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

The space powers are divided, and with a bitterness not seen since the cold war.

The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being felt around the world. Europe and the US saw an increase in energy prices, food scarcity threatens the middle east and north Africa, and manufacturers around the globe are constrained by critical supply chain issues. Ripples from the war have also been felt by an international space industry dominated by the same giants who are actively or passively involved in the conflict.

During the Soviet era, the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, also known as Rocket City, was home to Soviet space rocket manufacturing centers, and the cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv provided ground control and tracking services along with various technological support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the remnants of the Soviet space program in Ukraine were reorganized into their own space agency.

Fast forward to the 21st century — and Ukraine plays an active role in resupplying the international space station. Under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Service contract, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft delivers over 3000 kilograms of cargo to the orbiting laboratory, launched aboard the Antares rocket, whose first stage is supplied by Ukraine.

Antares was developed by the Orbital Sciences Cooperation and Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau specifically to resupply the ISS. In 2018, Northrop Grumman acquired Orbital Sciences and took over its operations. A two-stage medium launch vehicle with an optional third stage, Antares is 27.6 meters tall and 3.9 meters in diameter. The first stage is powered by aerospace-grade kerosene (RP-1) and liquid oxygen (LOX) while the second stage is powered by Orbital ATK’s (now Northrop Grumman’s) Castor 30 series solid-fueled rocket. Since Orbital Sciences primarily had experience with solid propellants, the first stage’s development and manufacturing was outsourced to Yuzhnoye SDO and Yuzmash’s facility in Dnipro, Ukraine, which also designed the Zenit family of rockets during the Soviet era.

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Initially, the first stage was powered by twin Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AJ26 engines, which were essentially NK-33 engines imported from Russia with improved electrical harnessing, US electronics, and modified steering systems. The Antares with these engines was designated as the 100 series. However, numerous design flaws with the engines resulted in a huge explosion on October 28, 2014, during a launch at Wallops Island, Virginia.

Going forward, Orbital Sciences announced it would use the NPO Energomash’s newer RD-181 engines and this version would be named the 200 series. Since then, the Antares has flown flawlessly to orbit, helping them win a second Commercial Resupply Services contract. Under the new contract, Antares was updated to Antares 230+, which included structural changes to the intertank bay (between the LOX and RP1 tank,) the forward bay of the LOX tank, a more powerful second stage engine, and trajectory improvements via a load-release autopilot to increase launch mass capability.

Casualties of War

With engines imported from Russia and a first stage from Ukraine, this launch vehicle was always at the mercy of shaky geopolitics. Apart from manufacturing Antares’ first stage, the Yuzhmash manufacturing plant also produced satellites, ballistic missiles, and industrial products which made it a potential target for the Russian forces. The fears of the facility being destroyed were realized when a Russian missile strike decimated the manufacturing hub in July, killing three civilians.

To keep the launch vehicle flying, Northrop Grumman announced a collaboration with Firefly Aerospace to develop a newer and more powerful first stage. Named the Antares 300 series, the new proposed beefed-up first stage will be powered by 7 of Firefly’s Miranda engines, aiming to produce over 7200 kN (1,600,000 lbf) of thrust. A major thrust increase and a new composite structure like Firefly’s next-generation Beta launch vehicle will substantially increase the mass capability of the rocket. The company is targeting late 2024 for its debut launch, but like all rocket developments, delays and failures are extremely likely.

As for the 200 series, Northrop Grumman has only enough components for 1 more launch, after launching the SS Sally Ride Cygnus spacecraft aboard Antares to the ISS on November 7, 2022. The Ukrainian first stage will reach space for the final time in the second quarter of 2023, and after that, Cygnus will have to look for other rides to reach orbit. To fulfill NASA’s contractual agreements, the company has sought launch services from SpaceX to ensure uninterrupted Cygnus space station cargo deliveries.

Other Joint space programs with Russia have also been jeopardized, including the European Space Agency’s ExoMars — a joint astrobiology effort between the two space agencies. The first mission of the program was the launch of ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and the Schiaparelli lander onboard Russia’s heavy launch vehicle Proton, in March 2016. The TGO is still operational as an atmospheric gas analyzer and a telecommunications orbiter. However, the Schiaparelli Entry, Descent, and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) were unable to land safely on the surface of the red planet.

Learning from this failure, the second mission of the ExoMars program would have seen ESA landing their Rosalind Franklin rover using Roscosmos’ Kazachok lander. Initially scheduled for launch in 2020, problems arose with the landing parachute which couldn’t be resolved in time, delaying the mission until the September 2022 Hohmann transfer window. After two years, the lander and the rover were technically ready, but the sanctions imposed by the European Union meant ESA engineers couldn’t work with their Russian counterparts to prepare the rover for launch.

By March 2022, ESA’s ruling council unanimously mandated a suspension of cooperative activities with Russia and began looking for ways to complete the mission without Russian resources. The agency began discussions with NASA to replace the Russian elements of the mission. “Our teams are working with the teams in NASA about the technical steps that need to be [completed],” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of ESA at the panel of space agency leaders at the 37th Space Symposium.

This was a serious setback for Europe’s Mars program. Their rover was left without a lander, a resource not easily or commercially available. “Realistically, we would be looking at a launch in 2028,” said Jorge Vago, ExoMars Project Scientist at NASA’s Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group meeting.

Launching during this period poses another challenge. One trajectory would get the rover to Mars quickly but just a month before the dust storm season, while an alternate path will take two years longer, but 6 months before the next storm.

“We have been trying very hard to convince the engineering team that the dust storm season is not death,” Vago said. “We should concentrate on making the rover more robust and able to weather [the storm.]”

The political support for the ExoMars rover remains strong from the ESA’s member states. On Wednesday, November 23, ESA’s Council at the Ministerial level in Paris passed a record-breaking €17 billion budget over the 3 years, which among others, includes the €360 million needed to rebuild the landing platform for the rover. This includes a 17% increase compared to what had passed at the previous member-state gathering in 2019 but fell short of €18.5 billion requested.

Delayed for nearly 10 years now, Astrobiologists still see value in ESA’s Franklin rover. According to a study published in Elsevier on November 22, the long ridges along the rover’s landing site – Oxia Planus – may be the tracks of ancient Martian waterways. ExoMars’s two-meter-long drill can be used to collect underground samples from a depth where researchers hope to find traces of past or present martian life.

Private Industry

Private entities have also been caught in the crossfire. Internet satellite constellation operator OneWeb had contracted Roscosmos to launch their satellites to orbit using Soyuz. Sanctions from the West and OneWeb’s potential use in the war resulted in Russia refusing to launch the company's satellites. Roscosmos’ ex-director general Dmitry Rogozin demanded the UK Government sell its stake in the company and guarantee that its technology won’t be used for military purposes if the space agency were to proceed with the launch. This came after SpaceX’s Starlink started supporting Ukraine by providing high-speed and reliable internet connections after Russia destroyed most cell network infrastructure during the initial days of the war. OneWeb had to suspend all their satellite launches, a decision that was fully supported by the British, whose spokesperson denied any intention of selling their stake in the company.

36 OneWeb satellites — delivered to Baikonur Cosmodrome for launch — still remain in storage, and Russia is refusing to return them. This, along with the suspension of OneWeb launches has resulted in over $229 million in losses, according to the company’s annual report.

Russia’s loss was a big gain for SpaceX and Indian Research Space Organization (ISRO) which were tapped by OneWeb to complete their satellite constellation. The company’s 8-month launch hiatus finally ended on October 23 when ISRO launched 36 OneWeb satellites to orbit onboard the Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III). Having previously supported the Chandrayaan-2 mission, GSLV Mk III has launched successfully 4 times and is designed specifically for human spaceflight.

It was followed by SpaceX’s launch of 40 OneWeb satellites onboard the Falcon 9 on December 8 from Florida, a mission that represented vital cooperation between the two competitors in space.

Roscosmos suffered further losses after ESA suspended all Soyuz launches from French Guiana. The Russian workhorse rocket was frequently launched from the European spaceport by Starsem, a European-Russian partnership, and was scheduled to launch the agency’s 3 science satellites: EarthCARE, Hera, and Euclid, 2 of the European Union’s Galileo navigation satellites, and several commercial payloads. The war has left them without a launch vehicle. ESA turned to SpaceX to launch their Euclid astrophysics mission next year, and an asteroid mission, Hera, in 2024 onboard the Falcon 9. The EarthCARE will now launch on the recently-upgraded Vega-C rocket. However, the decision on how to launch the Galileo satellites is still pending, given the fact that the maiden launch of Europe’s upcoming rocket, Ariane 6, has slipped to the last quarter of 2023.

International Divisions

Divided on Earth, but still united in space. The US and European Union may be moving away from Russian cooperation, but each country still maintains a working relationship to keep the International Space Station operational.

But there’s been friction.

NASA issued a rare condemnation of Russia’s actions when it released a photograph with cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergey Korsakov posing with the flags of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, territories occupied by Russian forces in the eastern part of Ukraine, recognized only by Russia and Syria. In a statement, NASA said it strongly rebukes Russia for using the International Space Station for political purposes and to support its war against Ukraine.

A similar statement came in a tweet from Aschbacher, “It is unacceptable that the ISS becomes a platform to play out the political or humanitarian crises happening on the ground. The purpose of the ISS is to conduct research & prepare us for deeper exploration. It must remain a symbol of peace and inspiration.”

In late April, Russia doubled down on its threat to pull out of the ISS. “The decision on the timing of the end of Russia's participation in the ISS program has already been made, but will not be announced yet,” said Rogozin in an interview with Russian media. This came after a threat that joint operations in orbit are at risk due to sanctions imposed by the Western nations.

Rogozin is well known for his blusterous anti-West rhetoric. The Director-General of the European Space Agency (ESA) later said that they don’t expect Russia to be withdrawing from the ISS, as currently, all its 15 international partners have agreed to operate the station until 2024. In July, Putin replaced Rogozin with Yuri Borisov, a deputy prime minister in charge of developing weapons industries.

Through public discourse, Russia maintains that it plans to exit the space station by 2024 to focus on the domestically built Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS), whose construction is scheduled to begin in 2028. However, NASA nor any international partners haven’t received exit notices from their Russian counterparts. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson issued a statement later saying the agency is “committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030” and “NASA has not been made aware of [termination] decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low-Earth orbit.”

“On the station are Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, and they are all very professional. The relationship between the mission control in Houston and in Moscow is very professional,” said Nelson during a press conference.

Further signs of cooperation came in September after NASA and Roscosmos finalized a seat barter agreement which saw NASA Astronaut Frank Rubio launching aboard Soyuz, while Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina launched aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as a part of expedition 68.

NASA’s Kathy Lueders said that NASA and Roscosmos "are operating just like we were operating" before the invasion. "Our teams are still talking together, we're still doing training together, we're still working together.”

Mihir Tripathy
Keenon Ferrell
December 13, 202211:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)