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Dark clouds, silver linings: Five ways war in Ukraine is transforming the space domain

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was the biggest story of 2022. Aside from reviving Cold War fears of nuclear war and playing havoc with energy markets, it’s been a black swan event for a space industry still adjusting to a black swan called COVID.
Credit: SpaceNews illustration/B. Berger

Russia’s flouting of international order set in motion a realignment with near, medium and long-term implications, casting dark clouds over the global space community but also revealing some silver linings.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has accelerated the U.S. Defense Department and intelligence community’s embrace of commercial satellite communications and Earth observation. Nations around the world, taking note of the commercial contributions, have backed domestic space startups and forged relationships with existing satellite service providers.

Satellites coupled with NATO weapons systems have helped Ukraine mount a formidable defense. On the diplomatic side, public dissemination of satellite imagery has stymied Russian disinformation operations and helped document war crimes and atrocities.

The war’s impact has been equally profound on the launch side.

While Russia’s self-inflicted exile has proved a nuisance for space companies depending on Russian hardware, Russia’s most important space exports before the invasion were launch vehicles.

With Russia’s Soyuz sidelined, possibly permanently, Europe is reckoning with gaps in its ability to deploy and maintain vital space infrastructure without outside assistance. Near term, that’s meant the European Space Agency and the European Union are pivoting from Russian dependence to U.S. dependence a la SpaceX.

Commercially, the loss of Soyuz, trade embargoes and Russian missile strikes on Dnipro’s Yuzhmash factory fed the supply chain dumpster fire that’s slowed constellation deployment.


1. STRANDED SATELLITES

Credit: SpaceNews illustration/B. Berger

The International Space Station is one of the few Russian-involved international endeavors to carry on business-as-usual post invasion. Other civil and commercial space programs haven’t fared as well.

The termination of Soyuz launch contracts stranded more than a dozen non-Russian satellite missions.After an eight-month pause, OneWeb resumed launching satellites for its broadband constellation in October on India’s GSLV Mark 3 rocket. A second Indian launch and three SpaceX Falcon 9 flights are lined up to help OneWeb complete its first-generation global constellation.

The European Space Agency also had to find new space transportation.

ESA’s Rosalind Franklin rover was scheduled to launch in September 2022 on a Russian Proton rocket and descend to the Martian surface in 2023 on a Roscosmos-built landing platform. With European and Russian cooperation severed, ESA has drafted plans for a European descent vehicle, making it unlikely the ExoMars mission will launch before 2028.

Other missions slated for Soyuz have had an easier time regrouping.

Two pairs of Europe’s Galileo navigation satellites have signed up for rides in 2023 on Arianespace Ariane 6 rockets.

Falcon 9 rockets are scheduled to transport ESA’s Euclid cosmology mission to Earth-sun L-2 Lagrange point next year and ESA’s Hera mission to Dimorphos, the asteroid struck by NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test, in 2024.

Meanwhile, Europe’s Vega-C rocket is now slated to launch ESA’s EarthCARE Earth science mission in early 2024.

Before the Russian invasion, ESA and Roscosmos were planning a trio of lunar exploration missions, which have now been scrapped.

The war and Western sanctions have forced nations to choose between partnering with the West or Russia. Lacking western partners, Russia has more closely aligned itself with China and forged a pact with Iran that led to the August launch of an Iranian remote-sensing satellite on a Soyuz rocket.


Credit: Flickr

2. EUROPE’S WAKE-UP CALL

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call for Europe’s space sector.

ESA, the European Union and individual nations have spent the last 10 months dismantling programs with Russian involvement and fostering domestic capabilities.

“We have to focus on ensuring full European autonomy in space as well as investing more in commercial growth areas,” Géraldine Naja, the European Space Agency’s director of commercialization, industry and procurement, said in November at the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany.

To bolster European autonomy, the ESA member states approved a 16.9 billion euro budget ($17.5 billion) over three years at the Ministerial Council Meeting in November, about 16.6 percent more than the spending plan approved in 2019.

“We must take bold decisions today. As I’ve said before, we must invest in the future because we are in a crisis,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said in the leadup to the budget vote.

The European Parliament and European Union member states also agreed to contribute 2.4 billion euros toward a six billion euro campaign with ESA to establish a satellite communications constellation called IRIS2, for Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite.

“The efforts and energy made at [the] European level to move this initiative forward at record speed also reflect, in my view, the importance of IRIS² in an increasingly contested geostrategic environment,” Thierry Breton, European Union commissioner for the internal market, said in a Nov. 17 blog.

Meanwhile, efforts to bolster funding for European startups, already underway before the invasion, have snowballed.

The European Commission, European Investment Bank and European Investment Fund have pledged to invest one billion euros over five years in early-stage European space and Earth-observation companies through the Cassini fund.


3. SATELLITES IN THE CROSSHAIRS

Credit: SpaceNews illustration/B. Berger

Just a few days into the conflict, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Federov reached out via Twitter to Elon Musk, asking SpaceX’s boss to provide Ukraine with Starlink satellite internet antennas, which Musk shipped right away.

That did not go over well with the Russians. Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s department for non-proliferation and arms, told a United Nations committee meeting that Starlink, although a commercial system providing internet services, “might no longer be considered purely civilian” and would be considered a military target.

The aggressive rhetoric can’t be brushed aside, given Russia’s demonstrated anti-satellite weapons capability. If Ukraine, for example, uses Starlink for military command and control, “these satellites would become legitimate military objectives for Russian forces,” noted U.S. Air Force Academy law professor Lt. Col. Timothy Goines.

Commercial remote sensing satellites that tracked Russia’s pre-invasion moves and galvanized the West in support of Ukraine also have drawn Putin’s ire.

“The Russians saying commercial space is fair game, I think that’s huge,” said Scott Herman, a former DigitalGlobe and BlackSky executive. “We are entering uncharted waters that no one actually understands or knows what are the actual legal implications.”

Shooting a satellite down would be the extreme and less likely scenario. More plausible are cyber or jamming attacks, where attributing responsibility is much harder.

In such scenarios, what constitutes an act of war and how the U.S. or NATO should respond are “unanswered legal questions right now,” Herman said.

These developments led the Pentagon to consider adding indemnification provisions in future contracts to compensate commercial companies if their satellites were attacked while supporting the U.S. military in a conflict.

“This has significant business implications because most satellite insurance policies do not cover acts of war,” Herman said.

Commercial operators optimize their satellites for efficiency and to generate revenue, not necessarily for resiliency during war. So the government providing some type of indemnification is a “a pretty good answer,” Herman said.

Speaking at a recent space investment conference, a top U.S. congressional appropriations staffer said he expects this issue to gain more attention.

Ukraine showed the value of commercial satellites, said William Adkins, professional staff member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.

“But the flip side of that is the degree to which commercial assets can become targets,” Adkins said. “That’s both a policy issue and a technical issue to think through in the future, as other conflicts are certainly going to come down the road.”


Credit: Maxar Technologies

4. IMAGERY ANALYSIS GOES MAINSTREAM

One of the most searing images of Russia’s invasion — a huge military convoy stretching more than 65 kilometers northwest of Kyiv — was taken by one of Maxar’s WorldView satellites.

The use of satellite images to shape the narrative of this war is the work of the Maxar News Bureau, an organization that has worked in relative obscurity for years.

Earth-observation company Maxar, which operates four high-resolution imaging satellites, created the news bureau in 2017 to leverage its satellite imagery and analysis for social good and global transparency. It built relationships with trusted media organizations worldwide and provided visual content at no cost to support their reporting.

“High-resolution satellite imagery and analytics are a powerful complement to good journalism, providing indisputable truth at a time when credibility is critical,” the company said in a 2018 news release.

Over the past few years, Maxar’s imagery exposed the displacement and killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; provided evidence of human trafficking and illegal fishing; monitored the growth of refugee camps in Uganda; chronicled the physical toll of wars in Iraq and Syria; and revealed the devastation of numerous natural disasters.

The bureau started monitoring the buildup of Russian forces and hardware along the Ukrainian border months before the invasion started in February 2022. Maxar’s bureau staff and news organizations every day aggregate and analyze thousands of images to identify newsworthy activities happening in Ukraine, including revelations of war crimes and human rights violations.

Maxar is, first and foremost, a commercial business. Its Earth imaging generates about $1.1 billion a year in revenue, about two-thirds of that from U.S. government contracts. But the Ukraine war cemented the role of the news bureau in promoting global transparency and combatting the spread of disinformation.


5. COMMERCIAL SPY SATELLITES SHINE

Credit: SpaceNews illustration/B. Berger

Maxar’s ubiquitous images of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine paved the way for other players in the commercial remote sensing industry to showcase their capabilities, demonstrating the value of unclassified intelligence that military agencies can share globally.

Companies like BlackSky and Planet have followed in Maxar’s footsteps providing electro-optical imagery to the news media. Commercial synthetic aperture radar imagery from Capella Space and Iceye also has seen higher demand, as radar penetrated heavy cloud coverage over Ukraine. Radio-frequency data providers like HawkEye 360 and Spire Global used satellites to track Russian GPS jammers.

Commercial electro-optical imagery has opened the door to these other geospatial services, said Amy Hopkins, Capella Space vice president and general manager of government services.

The crisis in Ukraine has helped “make us that much more capable” in figuring out how information can be collected, analyzed and delivered, Hopkins said.

Companies like Maxar helped the rest of the industry by making the U.S. government customer “comfortable with the concept of buying commercial capabilities,” said HawkEye 360 CEO John Serafini.

Herman, the former BlackSky executive, said Ukraine has helped put companies on the map, although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales or government contracts.

“A conflict like this actually helps you develop meaningful use cases and scenarios that you can then use to illustrate the value of your product,” he said.

Companies that have demonstrated their capabilities in Ukraine “can take it to the market and investors and say, ‘here’s all the stuff we were doing,” Herman said. Wars and natural disasters are painful, “but one of the silver linings is that it really helps us test our capabilities and build demonstrable use cases that help us sell in the future,” he added.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly...

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree...