State Department Issues Shipping Licenses for Two Russia-bound Satellites

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.S. State Department has issued shipping licenses for two commercial telecommunications satellites that had been scheduled for launch this year aboard Russian Proton rockets from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, industry officials said.

The licenses to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems and Airbus Defence and Space for the Inmarsat 5 F2 and Astra 2G satellites, respectively, would suggest that the reach of U.S. sanctions against Russia for its behavior in Ukraine has stopped short of the broader commercial space sector, at least for now.

“We got our approvals the week of May 7,” one industry official said of the shipping licenses. Three other industry officials confirmed that this was the case.

However, the schedule for launching Inmarsat 5 F2 and Astra 2G has been thrown into doubt by a May 16 Proton launch failure.

Industry officials had said in recent weeks that the U.S. sanctions are vague enough to have caused the State Department to hesitate before approving shipment of commercial satellites to Russia out of concern that the hardware might be judged to aid Russia’s military capability, if only indirectly.

A U.S. State Department official, while declining to comment specifically on the two satellites in question, on May 14 said U.S. policy remains one of reviewing all license requests in a case-by-case basis to determine whether their use in Russia would be covered by sanctions.

The Proton is used for both Russian-government and commercial launches. The commercial side of the vehicle’s manifest is managed by International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia.

Prior to the failure, ILS’s already-crowded 2014 manifest — two industry officials said it was overcrowded in hopes that one or more satellites would encounter last-minute production delays, delaying their launch readiness — was further squeezed by Russian government launches.

Luxembourg-based SES’s Astra 2G had been vectoring toward a September, a delay from June, because of Russian government demand for Proton. SES officials told investors May 9 of the June to September delay and said it had nothing to do with the U.S. government sanctions.

Airbus Defence and Space of Europe is building Astra 2G, but the satellite contains many U.S.-built components, as do all Airbus telecommunications spacecraft. It is for this reason that its shipment from Airbus’ Toulouse, France, facility had been on hold pending a State Department ruling.

London-based Inmarsat had been counting on two ILS Proton launches in 2014 to complete its three-satellite Global Xpress network for worldwide Ka-band mobile broadband service. The dates for those launches are now in limbo.

El Segundo, California-based Boeing is prime contractor for the Global Xpress satellites and is also an investor in the program through a take-or-pay contract under which Boeing must find U.S. government customers for the service or risk paying Inmarsat around $200 million, according to industry officials.

U.S. special forces have already begun testing service in Africa from the first Global Xpress satellite, already in orbit.

The ILS Proton is a mainstay of the global commercial space market, but it is not the only commercial space service whose proximity to Russia had raised sanctions-related issues.

Sea Launch AG of Switzerland, which operates in international waters but uses Long Beach, California, as a home base for its Russian-Ukrainian rocket, has scheduled a May 26 launch of a commercial satellite owned by Paris-based Eutelsat. The satellite was shipped to Long Beach before the sanctions took effect in late March, but Sea Launch officials had been concerned about whether their dealings with future customers might be constricted by the sanctions’ application.

Europe’s Arianespace launch consortium operates Russia’s Soyuz rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana, on South America’s northeast coast. One potential customer, the Moroccan government, had asked that Soyuz be removed as a launch option for two Moroccan optical reconnaissance satellites to avoid any issues related to sanctions even though the satellites are two years from launch.

The Canadian government pulled a Canadian satellite from the launch manifest aboard a Soyuz rocket operating from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. 

Two European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites, scheduled for European Soyuz launches in August, were shipped to the French Guiana launch base on May 7, another signal that U.S. government officials were not interpreting the sanctions to the maximum extent possible.

The Galileo satellites contain U.S. components.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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