PARIS — The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, early this year gave Glavkosmos rights to sell Soyuz rocket launches from Russia’s Baikonur, Plesetsk and Vostochny spaceports.
But it’s not quite exclusive: the French-Russian Starsem, some 20 years old, continues to have Soyuz marketing rights as well.
Can two organizations continue to compete to sell the same product? For now, yes, according to Glavkosmos Director-General Denis V. Lyskov.
But it’s likely to end relatively soon. Europe’s launch sector is preparing to introduce, in 2019 and 2020, an upgraded Vega small-satellite launcher and the Ariane 6 rocket, which together will just about end Soyuz operations from Europe’s spaceport.
Glavkosmos and the Russian-Ukrainian Kosmotras — the company that was marketing the Dnepr converted ballistic missile before Russian-Ukrainian tensions halted launches — have now formed a joint venture called GK Launch Services.
Lyskov said the joint venture did not assume any liabilities from the Kosmotras operation, however.
Why are you joining forces with Kosmotras, whose reputation in the market has suffered?
At present we do not have light-class launchers from Russia on the market. We had Dnepr, and the light-class rockets we did have were converted missiles.
Before their Ukrainian problem occurred — you know about our political problems with Ukraine — Kosmotras did pretty well on the market and was considered a price trendsetter. Their reputation as a launch-service provider, their relations with customers and their ability to work with customers proved their professional abilities.
Does GK Launch Services have any liability for issues relating to past Kosmotras contracts?
No, each partner in GK Launch Services retains its own problems, they are not part of the joint venture. Kosmotras will of course try to find out solutions to the problems of their customers. Kosmotras might offer GK Launch Services as an option, but that is up to them. They are responsible for all their past contractual commitments.
Why did Roscosmos, which is a shareholder with Arianespace in Starsem, which markets Soyuz, want to establish Glavkosmos as a Starsem competitor?
When we studied our position in light launchers, we discovered that our long-term partners — Arianespace and Starsem — have tended to prefer their own light-class launcher, Vega.
For some reason a dual-launch configuration — two satellites from two different customers — which is offered for Ariane 5, for some reason was not offered for Soyuz.
Soyuz is fully capable of acting as a light-class launcher in such a configuration. There are opportunities for this in the market.
This segment of the market is developing rapidly and we cannot waste time. We are ready. And we looked around for a partner with expertise in these kinds of missions. We considered all the candidates for that role and decided that the best one would be Kosmotras, with their competence as an operator.
For us it meant that we were able to establish a company very quickly that could immediately began offering services on the international market.
They have a good background in terms of customer support. This is exactly what we needed to get to the market.
Do you want the Dnepr rocket in your portfolio?
Yes. The logic behind the creation of this new company is as follows: Glavkosmos transfers its license to launch Soyuz missions from Russian spaceports, and Kosmotras transfers their activities with Dnepr, with launches as soon as all the technical and political issues are involved.
We are looking forward to Dnepr coming back to the market. But for now we will operate Soyuz.
When Dnepr is back it will not be a substitute for Soyuz. It will be an additional option for our customers.
Is there any indication that Dnepr will be back on the market soon?
It’s very unlikely to see any changes in the political situation soon. But in our view Roscosmos and Russian industrial companies will take over that part of the job that used to be done by Ukraine. Our task is to substitute what was done by Ukrainian teams before with Russian engineering expertise.
We don’t see any roadblocks to doing that.
Your mandate is for launches of Soyuz rockets from Russian cosmodromes for all non-Federal missions?
Yes, this new company will focus only on commercial launches. Military satellites for other governments in Russia are handled through Rosoboronexport. Then we will apply existing procedures per the established rules for military payloads.
So the customer contact for Soyuz launches is you?
Yes, it’s GK Launch Services, which was created in April. Due to the procedures we had to go through, the company was established in April but we are only just starting our operations.
What is Starsem’s role now?
Starsem has had an exclusive right to sell Soyuz launches for 20 years now. We believe that this was holding back our ability to participate in the market to the extent we would like. Over time, Starsem almost integrated into Arianespace.
We were not able to interfere with the commercial activities of another company, even as a Russian shareholder of Starsem. The situation we have observed is that the most rapid way to develop the market for light-class vehicles, Arianespace mostly offered Vega.
We believe that Soyuz also could participate there. for now, Starsem is involved in Soyuz from the Guiana Space Center and you know they have infrastructure in Baikonur — for OneWeb missions, for example.
Starsem still functions and supports Arianespace from Baikonur and the infrastructure. If a customer comes to Arianespace, he can choose whether he prefers a launch from Kourou, or a launch from Baikonur. With our new company the situation will be the same: A customer will have the option to use any of the three Russian cosmodromes.
So a customer with a constellation wanting to launch from Baikonur can go through you or Starsem?
Yes. It’s their choice. We have a Coordination Committee between ourselves and Arianespace/Starsem. We actually do coordinate our activities to avoid confusion for a customer so that the customer understands his options.
Why is Roscosmos still a shareholder of Starsem?
It’s a heritage. Nowadays you are seeing a lot of changes in Roscosmos, and those changes are ongoing. We are speaking of what we have today. It doesn’t mean that the same situation will remain in the future.
We see a great potential for the use of Soyuz and we think we can serve this market niche with new proposals for customers.
The solutions Soyuz can offer with upper stages such as Fregat provide flexibility in missions and we offer three spaceports: Baikonur, Vostochny and Plesetsk. OneWeb for example is planning launches from Vostochny. We expect to launch from Vostochny this year.
Won’t customers play you off against Arianespace and Starsem to get the lowest-possible price?
Yes, and why not? OneWeb is a complicated mission that required tight schedules for the launches and a large number of launches over several spaceports. So in this case Arianespace proposed what was available.
But for other customers that do not have these constraints and they will select the best solution and what is less expensive. It’s up to them to choose: Arianespace or us.
For example, Galileo is using Ariane 5 and Soyuz. It gave Arianespace flexibility to allocate the missions between the two vehicles. That’s a good advantage for Arianespace in the eyes of their customers.
We do not see any serious conflicts with Arianespace here. They can offer missions from French Guiana while we offer missions from Baikonur. They offer Vega for light-class missions while we offer shared launches of Soyuz in the same market segment.
So we complement each other for some missions and for light-satellite launches, we see competition from them.
What are you telling customers about flight rates, and what Soyuz version do you see as most promising?
At this point our prime target is the light-class market for LEO. The best Soyuz for this is Soyuz 2.1a with the Fregat upper stage. Our assumption is that we have two satellites with a mass of up to 2,000 kilograms each going to orbits that are close but we can deliver them to separate orbits at around 750 kilometers.
We are certain to have two launches per year and this is being pessimistic given our market assessments.
What can you say about pricing?
When we provide our proposals to customers for a shared launch, we would match the prices we had before Dnepr was suspended. Using our capabilities we would like to get back to the Dnepr price levels when it stopped operating.
Your main competitor is India’s PSLV?
Yes, that is our major competitor in the market. Our target at first is to approach the PSLV level of pricing. One of the tasks of our joint venture is to work on cost reductions to make our proposal more attractive.
When will launch operations as GK Launch Services begin?
We expect our first launch in 2019. We have already begun responding to tenders.
Is your biggest near-term opportunity the constellations of low-orbiting internet satellites? If so you’ll need to launch more than twice a year.
Yes and the twice per year is a pessimistic assessment without accounting for the big constellations. Everybody is waiting for the resolution of OneWeb’s situation. Others are expected but they have not yet been confirmed.
If OneWeb wants to add satellites, are they locked into Arianespace and Starsem?
That’s a tricky question. We will have to coordinate with Arianespace. Arianespace is still our partner and we want to behave in a nice manner. We see them as competitors in the niche of the light-class launchers. So this should be a stimulus for both of us.
We are in the process of reviewing our relationship; perhaps we will need to modify it but there has been no decision yet. In its initial stage of Soyuz in French Guiana, the targeted missions were to GTO and GEO. But the first one of these was only just performed this year.
For other customers, the missions were put on Ariane 5. It looks like for them, Soyuz is the last one in the line. That has been clear to us. Of course we are not happy with the situation. That’s why we have this new convention with them.