Trend or aberration? Russia is launching foreign satellites again

Satellite controllers in Dubai monitor the launch of a Soyuz rocket from Russia on Tuesday.
Zoom in / Satellite controllers in Dubai monitor the launch of a Soyuz rocket from Russia on Tuesday.

For the first time since the invasion of Ukraine essentially cut off Russia’s space industry from foreign customers, a Russian rocket lifted off on Tuesday and carried satellites with commercial technology from Western companies into orbit.

Payloads from the UK- and Luxembourg-based companies flew on a satellite owned by the UAE, which has maintained warmer relations with Russia than Western countries. While the payloads are small, their presence at Tuesday’s launch is notable after the war in Ukraine and resulting Western sanctions have effectively led to an embargo against the use of US and European space technology on Russian rockets.

UK and EU sanctions introduced after the 2022 invasion of Russia prevent the export of a wide range of space technology to Russia. Companies from the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and other nations have moved their satellites from Russian rockets, mainly moving them to launch vehicles from SpaceX, Rocket Lab and India.

The European Space Agency ended a partnership with Russia to explore Mars just weeks after it invaded Ukraine.

Russia launched an Angolan communications satellite last year, but that mission was part of an intergovernmental agreement. Russia continues to launch US astronauts to the International Space Station through a no-trade deal with NASA.

Tuesday’s launch began with a lift-off of a Soyuz rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, located in Russia’s far east, at 7:34 AM ET (11:34 UTC). The Soyuz booster and its Fregat upper stage successfully lifted a Russian civilian weather satellite into a polar orbit, then deployed 42 secondary payloads, mostly CubeSats from Russian companies and universities.

There were three small foreign satellites on the Soyuz launch list. One was from Belarus, a staunch Russian ally, and the others were from the UAE and Malaysia.

What surprised me about the others is that both have commercial elements with ties to the West, said Caleb Henry, director of research at Quilty Space, a satellite industry analysis and consultancy firm.

The mission of the 44-pound (20-kilogram) UAE satellite, dubbed PHI-Demo, is to serve as a host platform for two European technology demonstration experiments. The PHI-Demo spacecraft hosts a 5G communications payload from a Luxembourg company called OQ Technology that supports data transfer and asset tracking applications. Also on board is an experimental water-powered resistojet thruster developed by British company SteamJet Space Systems, which claims to specialize in green propulsion capable of delivering ten times the thrust of electric propulsion.

The UAE's PHI-Demo satellite weighed around 44 pounds (20 kilograms) at launch.
Zoom in / The UAE’s PHI-Demo satellite weighed around 44 pounds (20 kilograms) at launch.

The Dubai-based Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, which owns and operates the PHI-Demo spacecraft, said it developed the satellite in partnership with the UAE’s private space sector and research institutes. Britain’s SteamJet and Luxembourg’s OQ Technology secured deals with UAE officials to place their payloads on the PHI-Demo satellite, while the Emirates were responsible for selecting the Russian launch vehicle.

Another foreign satellite from Malaysia was also on the Soyuz rocket launch on Tuesday. Malaysia’s CubeSat is the first spacecraft owned by a company with big ambitions called Angkasa-X, calling itself Asia’s SpaceX, to provide broadband internet coverage for the Asia-Pacific region.

Angkasa-X is supported by Greenpro Capital Corp., a Nasdaq-listed Malaysian business incubator headquartered in Kuala Lumpur and registered in Nevada. Officials from the UAE, SteamJet, OQ Technology and Malaysia’s Angkasa-X did not respond to Ars’ questions.

An aberration

Satellite operators in the UAE and Malaysia booked their rides on the Soyuz launch on Tuesday through Russian intermediaries, including a private Russian company called Aerospace Capital and Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency. A German company originally involved in brokering trips for international satellites on the Soyuz rocket has withdrawn from the mission.

Russian, Emirati and Malaysian officials have not disclosed launch prices for the Soyuz flight. But it’s hard to imagine Russia undercutting SpaceX’s price for a small satellite to be used on one of its Falcon 9 rideshare missions without selling the Soyuz launch service below cost. A 20-kilogram satellite like the UAE’s PHI-Demo mission would have cost $330,000 to launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, according to a pricing tool on SpaceX’s website.

A manager of an international launch broker in 2021 said SpaceX’s rideshare launch prices were the cheapest to date.

Henry said he sees no indication of wider acceptance by the commercial satellite industry of the resumption of Russian rocket launches.

What I suspect is that companies that chose to launch on Soyuz after the Russian invasion of Ukraine will find that this action piques the interest of customers and investors in large areas of the world, especially in Europe and the United States, he said Henry. The recent launch of Soyuz strikes me as more of an aberration than a trend, but it’s too early to tell.

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