Ukrainian space industry players continue work, eye European projects amid war

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WARSAW, Poland — While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to impact the Ukrainian space sector, senior industry representatives say that local companies have so far managed to adapt their activities to the realities of war, and they are determined to advance joint projects with their European partners.

Volodymyr Usov, the co-founder of Ukrainian space industry startup Kurs Orbital and the former head of Ukraine’s space agency, told SpaceNews that over the past few days areas surrounding Dnipro, a region in eastern Ukraine that hosts a major space industry hub, have witnessed an increasing number of attacks by Russian forces. This said, to date, Russia’s airstrikes and artillery fire have not targeted the key facilities of the country’s space sector, he said.

An industry at work despite war

In total, the State Space Agency of Ukraine and the state-run space companies that include spacecraft and components producer Yuzhmash, space technology design office Yuzhnoe, and Kyiv Radio Plant provide an aggregate of 16,000 jobs, according to Usov.

Volodymyr Usov, the co-founder of Ukrainian space industry startup Kurs Orbital and the former head of Ukraine’s space agency. Credit: photo courtesy of Volodymyr Usov

“In Dnipro, Yuzhmash and Yuzhnoye have not been bombed or targeted by missile attacks so far. One of the possible reasons is that Russia’s plan is to take them over as part of their invasion, so they intend to keep these facilities intact,” Usov said. “Because of the Russian attacks in the Dnipro region, these facilities are not operating at full capacities, and they were forced to halt work on their projects. But a share of their employees ensures their operations continue.” 

Volodymyr Kravchuk, head of communications for Kyiv-based Promin Aerospace, said Ukrainian space companies both large and small are finding ways to continue their work despite the war. 

“All of these companies have continued their normal work,” Kravchuk wrote in a recent op-ed. At the beginning of the war, some adopted remote working, but they already had experience with this from the pandemic. Most companies have also created volunteering programs.”

Ukraine’s space industry was previously hit by Russia’s annexation of the country’s Crimean peninsula in 2014. Following Moscow’s aggression, the Russian authorities unveiled plans to overhaul NIP-16, a Soviet-built space tracking facility located in Crimea, and re-integrate it into the country’s network.

Another Ukrainian city targeted by Russia’s ongoing war, Kharkiv, is also home to a major space industry cluster.

“The Ukrainian space industry functions within the Dnipro-Kyiv-Kharkiv triangle. Our company, Kurs Orbital, is based in Kyiv where we also operate our R&D facilities, working with Kyiv Radio Plant. Our activities in Dnipro are focused on launch technology, and we also have an office in Torino in Italy,” he said.

Katie Miller, the head of communications at UK-Ukrainian launch vehicle developer Skyrora, told SpaceNews that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not hampered the company’s work. In addition to the staff who work at the Ukrainian R&D facility in Dnipro, Skyrora’s core business operations which include engineering, production, and central R&D activities, are continuing at pace at our UK facilities.” 

Our priority for our Ukrainian team who work at one of our manufacturing techniques R&D hubs is their safety and well-being, and we are providing all support possible to them,” she said.

European launch capacities

Orbit Boy concept art of an air-launched satellite deployment service it is developing with Yuzhmash and other Ukrainian space industry players.

In addition to Kurs Orbital, which seeks to provide spacecraft in-orbit servicing through a fleet of reusable servicers in different orbits, Usov is also the co-founder of Orbit Boy, a Ukrainian startup involved in developing a microsatellite air-launch system for European customers.

“The current invasion has demonstrated that Europe cannot depend on Russia and its Soyuz launchers to cover its needs. If the European Union’s member states want to maintain their own satellite constellation, they should carry out launches from their own territory,” Usov said.

With this in mind, Orbit Boy is developing a solution in cooperation with Yuzhmash and other Ukrainian space industry players, hoping to secure a capacity for air launches with the use of mid-range aircraft.

“In our case, the rocket will be placed inside the plane, and not under its wing. At an altitude of 10,000 meters, we make an airdrop,” he said.  “It’s an international effort. Last week, we met with representatives of the Polish Space Agency in Lviv, in western Ukraine. We want to cooperate with Poland on a solid-propellant rocket.”

“We have also established collaboration with Italian partners, and we wish to use an abandoned military base in Comiso, in Sicily. We will launch from there,” according to Usov.

Usov says he is confident that, once the war in Ukraine is over, the country’s space industry will further bolster its ties with European partners.

“Ukraine’s space sector has grown rapidly over the past years, and after the war, the government should encourage the development of private space businesses to compete with state-owned companies. Ukraine has applied to join the EU, and hopefully, the coming years will bring our space sector even closer to our European partners,” he said.