PARIS — Morocco’s decision to drop the European version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket as a backup launch option for two Moroccan reconnaissance satellites is the latest example of the ripple effects of the U.S. government’s sanctions against Russia for its incursion into Ukraine, industry officials said.
Morocco’s hypersensitivity to any possible licensing issues with the two satellites may be an extreme case of risk aversion. It remains unclear whether the European Soyuz — launched from French territory under French legal authority and sold by Europe’s Arianespace consortium — will ever be affected by the expanding sanctions imposed by the United States and other governments against Russia.
Even before the Ukrainian issue, officials in Morocco’s capital refused to acknowledge a contract with French manufacturers to build the satellites, which will be launched by Europe’s new Vega rocket.
But Morocco’s prudence is reflective of the confusion that surrounds the U.S. government’s intentions as the Ukrainian crisis appears to worsen and the confrontation with Russia heats up, officials said.
The U.S. State Department on April 28 said it would deny requests to export defense hardware and services — categories that under the U.S. Munitions List include satellites and satellite components — to Russia if the exports “contribute to Russia’s military capabilities.”
State Department officials said they are reviewing their backlog of export-license requests to determine which might be construed as aiding Russia’s military. It is not clear that launches of commercial satellites on Russian rockets, which account for a large share of the annual commercial satellite launch activity, will ever be denied.
For now, industry officials said, licenses are being neither denied nor approved — a tactic the U.S. government used starting in 1999 when it blocked U.S. satellites from being launched on Chinese rockets. The China policy remains in effect 15 years later, surviving on the idea that a commercial launch aboard a Chinese rocket constitutes aiding China’s military.
The expanded sanctions policy would appear to complicate a major lobbying effort that U.S. companies had been preparing to secure U.S. government approvals for civil and commercial satellites to be launched on Russian rockets.
The length to which regulatory or legislative opinion might go in extending the sanctions’ reach was illustrated by a U.S. Court of Federal Claims temporary injunction against future U.S. purchases of the Russian engines used on the U.S. Atlas 5 rocket for military satellite launches.
The Federal Claims Court judge was ostensibly ruling on a request by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to open future U.S. Air Force launch awards to competitive bidding. But the court’s injunction drew a straight line between the current sanctions and Russia’s aerospace industry.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was placed on the U.S. sanctions list, as an individual, in March. The sanctions specifically said then that Rogozin was targeted because he was deputy prime minister, and not because of any Russian industrial activities he may oversee.
But the court judge concluded that Rogozin’s position, which includes management of Russia’s space sector, makes it likely that he derives benefit from Russian defense exports, including the export of rocket engines.
That line of reasoning could be used to stop Orbital Sciences from further purchases of Russian engines on its Antares rocket, and to all but shut down the business of launching commercial satellites with U.S. parts on Russian rockets.
Reston, Virginia-based International Launch Services, which markets Russia’s Proton rocket, has declined to comment on how the sanctions have affected its business. Industry officials have said shipping licenses for satellites heading to the Proton launch base in Kazakhstan, which is run by Russia, have been held up by the State Department.
“They are sympathetic to our problem, but not forthcoming” with license approvals, one satellite industry official said. Satellites owned by SES of Luxembourg, Turksat of Turkey, Inmarsat of London and the Mexican government are all scheduled for launch in the coming months on Proton rockets, and all carry U.S. components requiring shipping licenses.
Other satellites being readied for launch at Russian-run launch operations include Paris-based Eutelsat’s Eutelsat 3B telecommunications spacecraft. Built by Airbus Defence and Space of Europe, Eutelsat 3B is in Long Beach, California, preparing for a launch aboard a Sea Launch rocket. Sea Launch is owned by Russian interests.
Eutelsat spokeswoman Vanessa O’Connor said April 25 that the satellite has received all necessary licenses to launch aboard Sea Launch.
The Airbus-built Express AM4R telecommunications satellite, owned by the Russian Satellite Communications Co. of Moscow, has arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in preparation for a May launch.
Both these satellites appeared beyond the reach of sanctions until the April 28 announcement, which said the State Department will now move to revoke existing licenses if they are deemed to help Russia’s military. It was not immediately clear whether the fact of launching a U.S. satellite or satellite components on a Russian rocket is, by itself, viewed as helping Russia’s military.
Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California, has a satellite scheduled for a mid-June launch as a secondary passenger on a Soyuz vehicle from Baikonur — the same launch that was to carry Canada’s M3MSat maritime messaging satellite before the Canadian government, citing the Ukrainian situation, refused to permit the launch.
Skybox told SpaceNews it would have no comment on the status of the satellite scheduled to be on the Soyuz launch.
Two British government satellites are on the same Soyuz, and the British government has said it has no problem with that. “Our government’s policy on sanctions is targeted more toward military exports,” a British government official said.
The April 28 State Department policy announcement reads in part:
“Effective immediately, the Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) will deny pending applications for export or re-export of any high technology defense article or services regulated under the U.S. Munitions List to Russia or occupied Crimea that contribute to Russia’s military capabilities.
“In addition, the Department is taking action to revoke any existing export licenses which meet these conditions. All other pending applications and existing licenses will receive a case-by-case evaluation to determine their contribution to Russia’s military capabilities.”