It probably was inevitable that fallout from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued meddling in eastern Ukraine would eventually reach the space sector, but the Obama administration must nonetheless be cognizant of the potential for space-related collateral damage as it seeks to penalize Moscow.

Recent U.S. sanctions barring defense-related trade with Russia already have halted processing of export licenses to launch satellites made in the United States or containing U.S. components — in the commercial sector, that means nearly all satellites — aboard Russian rockets, including Proton and Soyuz. This has left some satellites awaiting shipment to Russian launch sites in a state of limbo that, depending on how long it lasts, could cost their owners dearly in the form of deferred revenue.

The sanctions have the potential to shut down for an indefinite period of time a key avenue to orbit for the space industry. Commercial satellite operators have long complained about the lack of options for getting their payloads to orbit in a timely fashion, and freezing out one of the major players in the geostationary launch market will make the situation worse. Europe’s Arianespace consortium and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of the United States have full manifests for the next couple of years, and the other two main providers of geostationary launch services for commercial satellites are Russian owned. 

It’s not just commercial satellite operators that could be affected. Many if not most European government satellites contain U.S. components, and many of these are launched aboard Russian-built Soyuz rockets from Europe’s Kourou, French Guiana, spaceport. Examples include the European Union’s Galileo navigation satellites, six of which are slated for launch in the next year or so aboard Soyuz rockets.

Moreover, on April 30, a U.S. federal judge issued an injunction temporarily barring United Launch Alliance from procuring Russian-built RD-180 main engines for its Atlas 5 rocket, which launches U.S. national security and civil-space payloads. The judge cited the sanctions, specifically against Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the country’s space industry, as the reason, a logic that has implications for NASA’s current reliance on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the international space station.

It’s only natural that U.S. government authorities responding to heightened tensions with Russia would move to curtail activities that could benefit its military. But it’s possible that, in the realm of space — virtually all U.S. space technology remains classified as weaponry — the sanctions will inflict as much pain on United States and its allies as they do on Russia, perhaps even more. 

Russia’s space industrial complex certainly would feel the loss of the hard currency it earns launching commercial satellites. But losing access to Russian rockets could hit commercial satellite operators even harder.

Then there’s the question of the space station, which is entirely dependent on Russia for crew transport. The White House appears to have carved out an exception for space station crew services already under contract with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos. But that deal extends only until 2017, and would have to be extended if U.S. commercial crew transportation services now under development are not ready by then. Moreover, two of the three proposed U.S. commercial crew taxis would launch atop the Atlas 5.

Broadly interpreted, the current sanctions could preclude just about everything. That seems to be the reading of the judge who ordered the halt to RD-180 purchases, as well as of U.S. State Department officials who have suspended processing of shipping licenses for satellites whose primary export licenses have already been approved. 

Clearly, the White House needs to spell out, as soon as possible, which space-related activities will be exempted from the sanctions. That list should start with the commercial satellites currently awaiting shipment to the Russian-run Baikonur Cosmodrome for Proton launches. The owners of these satellites planned and contracted for these launches well in advance of the sanctions and literally have nowhere else to turn in the near term. 

Hope that the situation in Ukraine will be resolved quickly, which would allow the sanctions to be lifted, appears to be giving way to a sense that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. If the sanctions have to be kept in place indefinitely, the White House must continuously measure their adverse impact, both real and potential, on space activities, and make course corrections to minimize that wherever possible.