Russia’s Nesting Satellite Problems

Russia’s Nesting Satellite Problems

In November 2023, I provided an analysis of satellite manufacturing goals established by Roscosmos’ head, Yuri Borisov. The goals were to produce 125 satellites by 2025 initially, then ramp up to 200-250 satellites between 2025 and 2026, and then reach 400 satellites by 2030. According to him, at the time, Russian satellite manufacturers could churn out 40 satellites per year.

In the analysis, I explained why my doubts about the Russian space industry’s ability to reach those numbers were well-founded. It didn’t have a large customer base, primarily because of the warpath the Russian government chose. It also didn’t have plans to deploy internet relay satellites in the thousands (and it wouldn’t have made sense to do so).

A Bigger Problem Pile

Those reasons still stand. However, according to this recent Jamestown article, there are other reasons to doubt that Russia’s satellite manufacturers can attain those goals:

  • Roscosmos was/is losing money
  • No access to imported electronics
  • No clear space program strategies
  • Resource and production obstacles
  • Conflicting priorities from the top

Almost all of those reasons impact Russia’s satellite production. 

Take “conflicting priorities from the top.” The Russian government would very much not like to be embarrassed by the publicity of not having some kind of space station in orbit. However, its programs rely on funding from the International Space Station (ISS) partners. Moving away from the ISS means no more access to that funding. 

At the same time, rocket and spacecraft weapons are also necessary because of their global range and the publicity they get. So, new rocket programs important to Roscosmos may not receive the funding they need because that money is shunted toward Soyuz launches of military satellites.

It also sounds like Roscosmos is lucky to get any funding at all, based on the annual losses the agency has incurred. It’s unclear how a national space agency has net losses, but Roscosmos has incurred over $1 billion of net losses over several years (that’s, like, one SLS launch). Perhaps it’s beleaguered with corruption, a troublesome scourge that has faced Roscosmos before. What is clear is that the Russian space agency is terrible with money, which bodes ill for the nation’s space industry.

Refrigerators to the Rescue

Despite government efforts to have a localized electronics industry, the Russian need for imported electronics (unavailable because Russia invaded Ukraine) and its subsequent electronics scavenging is well-known. Stories have floated around about the Russian military cannibalizing the electronics from refrigerators imported to Russia. It was only a matter of time before the lack of access to imported electronics impacted the nation’s satellite production. 

There is an implication here, too, that if the Russian satellite manufacturers don’t have the resources to meet Roscosmos satellite production goals, the military satellite programs are possibly similarly constrained. Are there Kosmos-class satellites orbiting the Earth using Samsung refrigerator control boards? It sounds like it, based on this last paragraph from the Jamestown article:

As a result, after two years of war, Russia’s approach toward the space program is highly opportunistic. There are two main priorities. The first is to keep the manned space program at any cost. The second is to maintain the military space program by relying on a mass of short-living small- and micro-satellites made from imported consumer-grade electronic components.

Those refrigerator boards might be rated for the freezer's cold, but certainly not for space. However, Soviet space technology was also thought to be short-lived. It was the reason for the many launches that defunct government conducted before its fall. Ironically, Roscosmos would launch today’s modern but short-lived Russian satellites into orbit using Soyuz, which launched Soviet satellites.

Similarly, the new space station that the Russian government and Roscosmos would like to build might be slowed or canceled because of the lack of space-rated electronic imports.

Production Plans, Goals, and Conflict

Based on this additional information, the Russian space agency's plans to build more satellites per year won’t happen. Despite optimistic goals, all of it adds up to the Russian satellite manufacturers being unable to hit the average satellite manufacturing rate of 40. Borisov noted in a February 2024 interview:

“Today, theoretically, we can produce about 40 satellites annually, but in reality we produce even less.” <translated by Microsoft>

The Jamestown article confirms Borisov’s observation. However, the author notes that Russian satellites are being produced at a rate of 15 to 17 satellites a year. Sure, Borisov wants to increase satellite production and is searching for ways to do so. He provides the example of a Russian satellite manufacturer trying something new–for Russia. The manufacturer is looking into what Borisov calls “conveyor production”--assembly line production. 

He appears to believe that conveyor production will help increase initial satellite output of 100 kg or less smallsats and stated the possibility of scaling the process to build 500 kg satellites. Conveyor production appears to be why Borisov is sticking with Roscosmos' goal for the Russian satellite industry to produce 250 satellites by 2025.

But to implement those plans and meet those goals, the manufacturers need access to modern electronics required for functional smallsat operations. Since electronics are scarce, Russian manufacturers compete with Russian military requirements. 

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian civil satellite missions exceeded or equaled military satellite missions. When the invasion began, there likely was some backlog of imported space-rated electronics on Russian satellite manufacturer shelves, although Russia’s military satellite deployment share increased in 2022 and 2023. 

According to the Jamestown article, the electronics backlog is gone two years later. Russian military needs during wartime will supersede a commercial or civil operator’s space electronics needs. Even if conveyor production could be implemented in 2024 or 2025, it’s highly likely that the first satellites moving through the line would be dedicated to military missions.

Borisov’s hopes for smallsat conveyor production also conflict with his boss’ wishes. The Russian government wants a space station with a Russian crew. It wants to project power using space systems, which is probably more profitable to some manufacturing stakeholders than investing in production methods to build less expensive smallsats. Such a conflict could kill Borisov’s plans for smallsat production–unless the Russian military sees utility in using hundreds of smallsats (as the U.S. Space Development Agency does).

The increase in Russian satellite production seems unlikely (at least during the war), considering the funding problems, priority conflicts, and the need for imported space-rated electronics. That’s in addition to having no market with customers and no missions requiring increased satellite production,

Russia’s space industry centralization, guided by Roscosmos and the Russian government, was supposed to showcase how much better and more intelligently their authority would allocate resources, spend funds, and quickly finish space projects. 

The current situation seems the opposite of those goals. 

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