U.S. space companies to benefit from Russia pullback: Quilty Analytics

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A Falcon 9 rocket carries 49 Starlink satellites toward orbit on Feb. 3, 2022.

SpaceX

Russia is rapidly cutting itself off from much of the global space industry in response to Western sanctions due to the invasion of Ukraine, and U.S. companies stand to benefit, according to an analyst report on Friday.

“Russia and Ukraine have for decades contributed significantly to the global space industry. Both are
powerhouses of rocket and propulsion expertise, supplying launch services and engine systems to customers the world over,” Quilty Analytics, a boutique research and investment firm focused on space businesses, wrote in an industry briefing.

The Russian state-run Roscosmos space agency, with its Soyuz rockets, has long been one of the leading launch providers in the industry — delivering satellites, cargo and crew into orbit.

As Russia retaliates and withdraws its launch services for American and European organizations, Quilty sees U.S. companies as net beneficiaries, with a number of satellites now looking for rides to orbit. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is “the clear winner” in the launch marketplace, the research firm’s founder, Chris Quilty, told CNBC.

Already, SpaceX’s Starlink competitor OneWeb announced on Monday it will move launches of its internet satellites to Musk’s company, after terminating its launch agreement with Russia’s Roscosmos. OneWeb says launches with SpaceX will start later this year.

“Russian launch activity is being withdrawn from the market at the exact moment that launch rates are hitting new historical records. Someone needs to absorb this demand, but Europe is not well positioned because of their top-down approach to the market,” Quilty said.

Musk, in a response to CNBC, said that SpaceX does not expect to see a dramatic increase in the demand for launches to orbit this year. Prior to Russia’s step back from the market, SpaceX expected to launch about 65% of all the world’s spacecraft flying to orbit this year. Musk said that “incremental demand might take that to ~70%, so not a major change,” Musk said.

Beyond SpaceX, other companies providing space station services and developing new orbiting habitats — such as Boeing, Axiom, Sierra Space, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Voyager — are poised to benefit. Quilty also sees Iridium Communications likely gaining from providing satellite communications to Ukrainian and NATO forces.

Russia’s retaliation in space

A Soyuz 2 rocket launches 36 OneWeb satellites on March 25, 2020 from Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia.

Roscosmos

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, it began retaliating to sanctions through Roscosmos — with the suspension of OneWeb internet satellite launches earlier this month one of the country’s first actions.

Quilty outlined Russia’s space retaliation in four categories:

  1. Soyuz rockets withdrawn from the European launch market
  2. Termination of rocket engine sales to the U.S.
  3. Threatened disbandment of the International Space Station partnership
  4. A cyber attack that disabled Viasat broadband service in Ukraine and other parts of Europe

In satellite and spacecraft manufacturing, Russian-based company EDB Fakel makes propulsion units and supplies electric thrusters to OneWeb, Quilty noted, as well as “several” makers of large geosynchronous satellites.

“EDB Fakel estimates it has roughly 10% of the global spacecraft market, a share they are likely to forfeit due to the Russian government’s actions,” Quilty wrote.

The impact of the withdrawal of Soyuz rockets from much of the global launch market also has serious ramifications. Soyuz has long filled an important role in the middle of the launch market and has been a staple for Roscosmos and the Russian space program.

Soyuz has also benefited significantly from Western demand for launches, with international civil customers accounting for 51% of Soyuz missions since 2000, Quilty said. Additionally, Russia’s launch infrastructure, with three primary spaceports, have made up a quarter of global launch activity since 2010, the firm said.

“The loss of western customers and demand sources (like the ISS) will economically hurt,” Quilty wrote.

U.S. companies

Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket lifts off from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Aug. 10, 2021 carrying a Cygnus spacecraft with cargo for the International Space Station.

Terry Zaperach / NASA Wallops

There will be a need for other suppliers and eventually a new space station if Russia withdraws early from the ISS partnership, or at least doesn’t extend its role beyond 2024, the firm said.

U.S. space companies would stand to benefit. Quilty found multiple companies as likely filling that gap in services — with SpaceX and Sierra Space for cargo delivery, Boeing and SpaceX for crew delivery, and the four private space stations in development: Axiom’s, Northrop’s, Starlab, and Orbital Reef.

Quilty also identified five satellite imagery companies – Maxar, Planet, ICEYE, Capella, and BlackSky – as gaining from the demand for same-day intelligence about the situation in Ukraine.

“A handful of companies have been at the forefront of providing optical, hyperspectral, and SAR imagery during the Russian-Ukraine conflict, but most (if not all) EO players will benefit from this unprecedented exposure,” Quilty wrote.

In satellite communications, Quilty believes Iridium may see an increase in demand for its Certus broadband and push to talk devices and services.

“Iridium typically experiences demand spikes for its narrowband voice/data services at times of global crisis, including earthquakes, weather related events, and military conflicts,” Quilty wrote.

But Quilty also cautioned that Iridium could “face some blowback in Russia,” where the company provides services to “thousands of users, especially in the energy industry.”

While United Launch Alliance, the rocket building joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed, uses Russian-built RD-180 engines to power its Atlas V rockets, the end of engine sales “is not a major loss for ULA” since the company already has the engines it needs as it phases out use of Atlas V. However, ULA does not stand to benefit from stranded Soyuz customers, Quilty noted, as the company’s replacement Vulcan rocket series has yet to make its debut and the remaining Atlas V rockets are already booked.

Northrop Grumman, on the other hand, still purchases Russian-built RD-181 engines to power its Antares rockets. Additionally, the rockets’ main body is manufactured by Ukrainian Yuzhmash State Enterprise, which makes Antares “heavily dependent” and arguably the “most compromised” U.S. rocket series by Russia’s war. While Northrop Grumman has said it has what it needs to conduct two more Antares launches, which cover mission orders until early 2023, the rocket’s future is in doubt.

“Without a resolution to the war, it is unclear how Antares will continue without an extensive redesign. NASA is Northrop Grumman’s sole customer for the rocket,” Quilty wrote.

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