With the Russian government-backed space agency Roscosmos imposing restrictions on global commercial clients looking to launch their satellites aboard its Soyuz line of rockets, the Indian space sector may stand to gain commercial contracts as a fallout of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Since their inception 56 years ago, Soyuz rockets have been involved in over 2,000 global missions. In 2021, there were a total of 22 Soyuz launches, which were all successful. However, earlier this month, Dimitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, announced that the agency will not carry on with the planned Soyuz missions of deploying 36 low-Earth communication satellites belonging to OneWeb — the satellite operations company that is partly owned by Indian telecom operator, Bharti Airtel.
The move, among other announcements, was a retaliation from Russia against economic sanctions imposed on the country by Western nations such as the Uk and US following the invasion in Ukraine. OneWeb was yet to respond to a request for comment at the time of going to press.
Skyroot Aerospace and Agnikul Cosmos are two private space startups in India that are looking to launch their own, indigenously built rockets in 2022. While the latter is expected to host two launches of its rocket, called Agnibaan, this year, Skyroot is expected to launch a rocket called Vikram, by December. These rockets could stand to gain commercial clients backing away from the Russian Soyuz.
“Soyuz has been one of the most successful rockets, and has continuously attracted global commercial clients. If Roscosmos restricts access to Soyuz, then these clients are likely to look elsewhere to launch their satellites – and India is one such destination,” said Pawan Kumar Chandana, chief executive of Skyroot. He added that Skyroot has been in conversation with multiple commercial parties of late. However, he added that ripple effects of Russia’s decision to push back clients from Western nations will only be visible in the long term.
Awais Ahmed, chief executive of Indian space-tech startup Pixxel, agreed that the present scenario could lead to Indian space startups seeing increased interest from global clients.
Not everyone agrees, though. Chaitanya Giri, a consultant at Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think tank under the Ministry of External Affairs, believes India will face stiff competition even if Russia withdraws support of its launchpads. “The United States, for example, has its own infrastructure and operators to launch their satellites through, so they will likely not be dependent on other nations as much,” he said. “There could be a few clients who may look outside the already developed nations as a result of waiting times on the more established space companies, but that may not be a large number,” he added.
Giri also cautioned that Russian and Chinese central space agencies could collaborate on various missions going forward, which in turn could create geopolitical factions in the space sector. “Under such circumstances, it is important that Indian space startups steer clear of political conflicts – which could disrupt their operations plans,” he said.
Ahmed, Chandana and Giri all reckon that the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine would most likely not disrupt the current launch plans that Indian firms have for their rockets – both in the private sector and via the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).
“India does not have as heavy a launch schedule as Russia, China or the US as of now. Further, there is already over 80 percent indigenization of the production processes of rockets, space technologies and infrastructure in India. The only area where India could remain dependent on other nations are for raw materials, like the sourcing of titanium, or raw components required for semiconductors – which are a key part of the space industry,” said Giri.
However, he added that due to India’s fairly light launch schedule, any component crisis is also not likely to make an impact at least over the next two years.