U.S. Sanctions Putting the Brakes on Russia-bound Satellite Shipments

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PARIS — U.S.-built satellites and satellites with U.S. components scheduled for launch this year from Russian territory, including the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome — and vehicles outside Russian territory managed by Russian interests — are now faced with being denied the normally routine shipment approvals as U.S. sanctions against Russia, put into place in March, bite further into the space industry, industry officials said.

The most immediately affected companies included satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, whose Astra 2G telecommunications satellite was scheduled for a June launch aboard a Proton rocket from Baikonur; London-based Inmarsat, which was counting on two Proton launches this year to start its global Ka-band mobile broadband project; and Turksat of Turkey, whose Turksat 4B was scheduled for a midsummer launch on a Proton.

In addition to these large geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellites, whose owners contracted with International Launch Services of Reston, Va., for commercial Proton launches, small-satellite owners riding as secondary passengers on Russian Soyuz and Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr vehicles are also affected. Both these vehicles are launched from Baikonur or other Russian spaceports.

The decision in March by the U.S. Commerce and State departments to refuse to issue export licenses for Russia-bound defense and dual-use articles — categories that still include satellites — is now being felt.

Most satellite owners plan their launches at least a year, if not two years, before the planned liftoff. At the time of signing a contract with ILS or another operator of Russian vehicles, owners typically seek export approvals. But many of them do not seek final shipment authority — a mere formality in normal times — until the satellite is nearing completion.

It is these shipment approvals that are now being withheld under the U.S. sanctions policy, industry officials said.

“This is going to be a huge problem for the entire industry if the sanctions are not lifted soon,” said one official planning a launch on Russian territory this year. “If the Russian Proton rocket is not going to be available, then it’s an industry problem, not just a problem for a couple of companies. Ariane’s manifest is full,and so is SpaceX’s. Sea Launch is not a full option at this stage.”

France-based Arianespace and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. both compete with Russia’s Proton for launches of commercial telecommunications satellites. Switzerland-based Sea Launch AG is another competitor.

In what two industry officials agreed could be considered a canary in the coal mine, the Canadian government blocked shipment to Baikonur of a small Canadian government satellite with a commercial payload for maritime communications. 

It could not be immediately determined whether the satellite Canadian government was acting on its own policy or was following U.S. policy because the Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite, M3M, has U.S. parts. M3M is one of several small satellites scheduled for launch aboard the Soyuz launch set for June. The main payload for the launch is a Russian meteorological satellite.

A U.S. industry official said the policy, which covers defense and dual-use items — and given the definition of satellites in the U.S. government, also includes spacecraft — extends beyond satellites and launches on Russian-controlled territory.

Any defense-related transaction with Russian interests would be affected, including tracking, telemetry and control services. Sea Launch, for example, operates in international waters but, because it is majority-owned by Russian interests, would also be covered, this official said.

It remained unclear whether the “Russian interests” meaning would extend to launches of Russian Soyuz rockets from Europe’s Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, on South America’s northeast coast.

France is the “launching state” in terms of legal responsibility for the European spaceport. But the Arianespace consortium contracts with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, for the purchase of Soyuz rockets.

The Europeanized Soyuz’s position relative to the current U.S. sanctions will not be tested until late this year at the earliest. The next launch of the rocket, scheduled for June, is of four broadband communications satellites owned by O3b of Britain’s Channel Islands. The four satellites, which have U.S. components, arrived in French Guiana on April 25.

Following that, a Soyuz launch of two European Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites is scheduled for August. These two have U.S. parts, but one official said their license to ship has already been granted and that they will arrive in French Guiana in mid-May.

“The current [sanctions policy] was intended to be a temporary hold on dealings with Russia. It was never intended to be permanent,” the U.S. industry official said. “At this point, I am not sure the government has an exit plan, but I am hopeful that we could see some movement in the next few weeks.”

Several industry officials said they are counting on companies that are practiced in the arts of Washington lobbying to have the policy modified so that, for example, exceptions for some satellite programs — those that already have their basic export licenses — could be granted.

The Canadian government decision was disclosed April 24 by Com Dev International Ltd. Com Dev’s majority-owned exactEarth affiliate is building a commercial business supplying satellite-enabled ship-identification services to maritime authorities and others, and the M3M satellite, with a payload for exactEarth, had been scheduled for the June Soyuz flight from the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Cambridge, Ontario-based Com Dev, in a statement, said it had already started to make plans “to mitigate the impact of any such delay” and was confident that such plans could be in effect in short order. The company did not identify its launch options.

M3M was built by Com Dev under contract to several Canadian government agencies. The government had given a license to exactEarth to use the satellite’s Automatic Identification System payload to add to its existing fleet of orbiting sensors as it builds its business.

Com Dev said the Canadian government has signaled its willingness to help the company secure an alternate launch service.

“Both Com Dev and exactErth made significant investments in the development of the satellite, and in upgrading its capabilities,” Com Dev said in its statement. 

Industry officials since March have privately expressed the hope that the Ukrainian tensions would dissipate soon enough to avoid major interruptions in satellite programs for which licenses will be necessary.

Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., and United Launch Alliance of Denver both use Russian engines for their Antares and Atlas 5 rockets, respectively, and these vehicles are now used mainly to launch U.S. government payloads.

The chief executives of Orbital and ULA have said in recent weeks that they are confident their engine supply will not be interrupted.

 

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