Soyuz rockets in the shadow of war
By the start of 2022, Russian tanks massing on the border with Ukraine appeared to score one major target – the last prospects for future foreign orders of Soyuz rockets. In the meantime, the Soyuz' remaining international customer had to prepare back-up plans.
At the time of the Kremlin's massive escalation of the war in Ukraine in February 2022, Soyuz remained the only Russian rocket family still flying commercial missions for international customers. By far main and practically only major foreign client fully dependent on Soyuz at the time was the London-based OneWeb company that had already completed 13 launches deploying its Internet satellite network. In the aftermath of the all-out war in Ukraine, the fate of the future OneWeb launches depended on the status of economic ties between Russia and the West and potential new sanctions.
According to industry sources, OneWeb had already paid for all the Soyuz rockets assigned for the delivery of first-generation satellites for the constellation, therefore a potential ban on transfer of funds to Russia was not expected to impact the active contract between Paris-based Arianespace and the Russian space industry. To derail the operation, the yet-to-be-imposed sanctions would have to ban the actual launches, but the European Union had indicated that it would not prohibit "space services," an industry source told RussianSpaceWeb.com on February 23, (or hours before Russia had launched its latest assault on Ukraine).
Early on, OneWeb also ruled out any of its Soyuz launches from Russia's severely underutilized Vostochny spaceport, which Roskosmos desperately wanted to engage into the project and which had been used by the company in 2021. Starting in 2022, all planned OneWeb missions were scheduled from Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan.
Finally, OneWeb made some back-up plans for the use of non-Russian rockets going forward. According to one industry source, the company had "a few options" among available launch providers, but considered them as a last resort. Presumably, OneWeb would fall back on that plan for the launches of next-generation satellites starting in 2025 or 2026 or in case of a major breakdown of economic cooperation between Russia and the West, which did take place after Moscow's invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Almost immediately, OneWeb suspended all its launches on Soyuz and Roskosmos ended Soyuz launches from the European spaceport in French Guiana.
OneWeb reportedly paid 90 percent of the cost for each unused vehicle, because remaining money were to be delivered upon the completion of launches.
The ESA ruling council meeting in Paris on March 16 and 17, officially put on hold all its missions previously planned for launch on Soyuz. According to the agency, these involved "four institutional missions for which ESA is the launch service procurement entity (Galileo M10, Galileo M11, Euclid and EarthCare) and one additional institutional launch. Consequently, the ESA Director General has initiated an assessment on potential alternative launch services for these missions, which will include a review of the Ariane 6 first exploitation flights. A robust launch manifest for ESA missions’ launch needs, including for spacecraft originally planned for launch by Soyuz from Kourou, will be submitted to Member States."
At the March 17 press-conference following the Paris meeting, ESA said that it was looking at placing one of former Soyuz payloads on the inaugural launch of the Ariane-6 rocket, but such a scenario was not very likely at the time. At the same time, a subsequent Ariane-6 was considered for a launch of stuck Galileo satellites as early as 2023, according to head of Arianespace. On March 29, ESA announced that it was focusing on Ariane-6 and Vega-C as replacements to Soyuz and would propose a primary and a backup launch plan for each of its stranded missions by June. The agency also said that at a ministerial council meeting in November, it would propose its member states to support one of the competitive micro-launcher projects then under development in Europe, aiming to launch one of its missions as early as 2024.
In the meantime, Roskosmos stuck with storage and maintenance costs associated with the unused rockets, if the state corporation ever planned to launch the vehicles with federal payloads.
Soyuz rocket missions in 2022:
February 3: Soyuz launches a classified payload
Opening Russia's orbital launch attempts in 2022, a Soyuz-2-1a rocket delivered a classified satellite into orbit, following a liftoff from a military spaceport in Plesetsk, north of Moscow on February 5.
February 10: Soyuz launches the 13th OneWeb cluster
A Soyuz rocket continued the deployment of the OneWeb constellation with the first mission in 2022 lifting off on February 10 at 21:09 Moscow Time (1:09 p.m. EST). Launching from the near-equatorial launch site in French Guiana, it was the 13th OneWeb mission, boosting the overall number of spacecraft in the network from 394 to 428.
February 15: Progress MS-19 arrives at ISS
The first Russian cargo mission to the International Space Station in 2022 departed Baikonur Cosmodrome on February 15. The Progress MS-19 spacecraft followed a two-day rendezvous profile with the outpost, docking at the Poisk module on February 17.
The first Russian crew backdropped by the Kremlin's war against Ukraine launched Friday to the International Space Station, ISS. Coincidently, for the first time in many years, there were no foreign crew members aboard the fresh Soyuz transport, which is expected to dock at the Prichal Node Module, UM, another first for the Russian ISS Segment.
March 22: Soyuz launches 10th Meridian satellite
Russian military personnel at the Plesetsk launch site fired a Soyuz-2-1a/Fregat rocket with a fresh copy of the Meridian satellite. Entering an elliptical orbit around the Earth during a continuing war against Ukraine, the satellite will likely play a role in bolstering military communications, possibly replacing a failed spacecraft within the Meridian series.
April 7: Soyuz launches spy satellite
Russian military personnel in Plesetsk launched a second satellite in two weeks. A Soyuz-2-1b rocket carried a semi-classified payload known as Lotos-S1 or 14F145. It was the sixth addition to the Liana constellation performing electronic intelligence from space for the Russian armed forces.
Summary of Soyuz rocket launches in 2022:
Soyuz-2-1/Fregat rocket with Neitron satellite shortly before launch on Feb. 5, 2022. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak