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Space front of war: How Western friends help Kyiv – Yevhen Rokytskyi

We publish the translation of the interview given by Yevhen Rokytskyi to the Czech edition Blesk Zprávy.

Ukraine has had a strong space industry since Soviet times, working closely with Russian industry until the annexation of Crimea. The invasion disrupted production, but paradoxically brought new opportunities for cooperation with Western partners who had previously been wary of Ukraine. “Russians are no match for Western technology, and now sanctions have deprived them of high-tech electronics,” Yevhen Rokytsky, head of the space cluster in Dnipro, told Blesk Zprávy. On the other hand, Ukraine gained access to data from hundreds of high-tech civil and military satellites of NATO countries. He sees hope in cooperation during the war and after it with European companies, including Czech ones, which can complement Ukrainian ones.

Yevhen Rokytskyi, Head of the All-Ukrainian Association of Innovative Space Clusters

Eugene Rokitsky started in the field of satellite imagery in the 1990s, then worked in the field of financing innovative projects. Today he deals with both technologies (upstream – rockets, spacecraft, satellites…) and the use of satellite data (downstream).

He is currently the head of a cluster (a cluster is an association of enterprises, scientific institutions and other entities) of the space industry in the Dnipropetrovs’k region, as well as the head of the Alliance of Space Clusters of Ukraine. In these roles, he represented the Ukrainian industry at meetings with experts and potential partners in Brno and Prague (in particular, during the EU Space Industry Week organized by the European Space Program Agency – EUSPA).

What is the impact of the invasion on the Ukrainian space industry today?

The war has slowed down the development of upstream projects, as they are highly dependent on aerospace production facilities, which are mainly located in Dnipro and Kharkiv, which were heavily bombed. Another problem is the ban on the free movement of men from Ukraine – they are not allowed to leave the country, which is a serious obstacle to the development of human capital, contacts and exports. The aerospace industry is very dependent on personal communication and team building.

On the other hand, Earth imaging projects are now developing at an extraordinary speed. Compared to previous years, Ukraine – both public and private sector – has gained access to the best allied satellites in orbit. If earlier it was fifteen or twenty satellites, now we have direct or indirect access to more than two hundred satellites that take pictures of the Earth. Both optical and radar. This is a great impetus for the development of orbital data processing technologies. But if earlier it was a more long-term development, now everyone is working on immediate application. In this regard, the war had a positive impact on the space industry.

What kind of satellites?

We have data from state and commercial sources, thanks to the cooperation of NATO countries. For many years we have been using the European Union Copernicus system, which is free for everyone – both fresh data and archives. We have used it in agriculture, forestry, water management… Modern defence systems on the battlefield require a resolution of less than half a meter per pixel, about ten times more accurate than Copernicus. Such images already recognize individual vehicles on the battlefield, and private satellite operators such as Maxar and others already provide such images. Modern satellites can shoot with their cameras, they can focus more on specific areas.

Are private satellites on the same level as military, spy satellites?

Sometimes they can surpass them, they can have higher resolution. But the main thing is to conduct constant surveillance of the area. No country on its own has enough satellites to support this. What is being built now is the informal public-private cooperation that allows pooling resources and countering security threats to Europe and the world.

How long does it take for a satellite image to reach the end users, such as troops in the field?

I do not know the exact time. But when a satellite takes an image, then it is processed, sent to headquarters for analysis and possibly further, it usually takes less than 24 hours. In some cases – just a few hours. They helped to monitor the build-up of Russian forces near the border and then the columns of Russian tanks heading towards Kyiv. But it is not instantaneous for a satellite to fly over and immediately transmit coordinates to gunners where to aim.

So what are they used for?

Multilevel systems, as a combination of satellite navigation (GPS, etc.) and unmanned surveillance. Such systems today are a necessity not only in the military sphere, but also in the field of port security. This can be constant surveillance with the help of sensors on the ground, sensors on drones and sensors in orbit.

What are the capabilities of Russian reconnaissance and imaging satellites by comparison?

In some aspects, the Russians are very advanced, although, of course, not as advanced as the Americans, Europeans and Chinese. The Russians have satellite platforms – the basic structures; optical components are produced in Russia and Belarus, although not as advanced; but the supply of chips is very important. They are heavily dependent on chips and microelectronics from the West.

And they lost them because of the sanctions…

Unless they have large stockpiles. Or they don’t find some ways to work with China, officially or not. But they are running out of high quality microelectronics. And this will affect Russia’s ability to produce modern reconnaissance satellites.

Does Ukraine really have its own satellites?

Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, Ukraine has lost a number of opportunities to build its own fleet. The recent attempt to put into orbit the Sich-2-30 satellite was not very successful because it was a very old design, actually a copy of a satellite developed 15 years ago. It was launched a month and a half before the war started. I would not say that it was very useful. Other projects are being developed by the academic and private sectors. Kyiv Polytechnic has put two satellites into orbit and is preparing a third, but they are small cubic spacecraft, they cannot carry any normal instruments. They are just to test a few things.

Private projects are more interesting because they are based not only on post-Soviet or Ukrainian technologies, they are mostly based on new technologies – both our own, European and others. I see the future in cooperation of Ukrainian developers with Europe. Europe, including the Czech Republic, has advanced very far in satellite technologies – navigation, telemetry, etc. We should not reinvent the wheel, but rather establish cooperation. War and geopolitical changes will make it possible. Until now, Ukraine was behind a kind of barrier, with numerous restrictions on technology transfer from the EU to Ukraine, on the sale of dual-use systems (which can be declared for civilian projects, but used for military purposes – ed.) Now I think it will be calmer.

During the failed invasion, the weaknesses of the Russian military in the field of communication technologies became obvious, and Ukrainians were often able to eavesdrop on them…

From what I have heard, the Russians are definitely behind NATO and the Ukrainian military in encrypted communications. They often use unprotected communications, they do not know how to build secure networks. And this is also due to shortcomings in their orbital technology. Their satellites are not as advanced as American and European ones. However, the orbital component is only one part of the communication system, the ground segments are lagging behind.

But they have excellent modern means of jamming, which they have been developing for the last decade and a half. They are quite strong in that. That is where they hurt Europe when they attacked its satellites with jammers at the beginning of the war. These lessons are now being learned by the entire satellite communications community. All in all, Western satellite communications may soon become much safer.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, which provided Ukrainians with its Starlink satellite Internet, said it had quickly removed the obstacles…

Yes, they were pretty quick. This is always such a game. One of them has an advantage, the other tries to strengthen this advantage… But I think SpaceX will remain resilient to other threats.

Is Starlink really a valuable asset, or maybe they write about it because Elon Musk is famous?

I can’t comment much on that, some aspects are classified, they supply both the civilian sector and the military. But from what I know, it is always convenient to have their terminal. Anyway, the Russians are threatening to destroy civilian telecommunications infrastructure. And not only in Ukraine – they can also disable the infrastructure in other, neighboring EU countries. This could happen as early as this winter. To prevent such a threat, satellite communications like Starlink should certainly be encouraged, developed and used.

How would such attacks look like?

Physical destruction of cables, relay stations. And electronic attacks on communication stations. It is important to have systems that cannot be easily destroyed. The sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipeline is an example of how vulnerable critical infrastructure is.

How much did the Ukrainian space industry inherit from the times before the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Not even before the collapse of the USSR, but before 2014. In the post-Soviet space, cooperation continued. Ukraine produced medium-range Zenit missiles. They were launched from the Russian Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and then also from neutral waters off the coast of the United States under the Sea Launch program – a joint effort of Boeing, the State Space Agency of Ukraine and Roscosmos. The Ukrainian rocket was launched 36 times from the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition to rockets, Ukraine has also developed docking systems, we have produced systems for docking on the International Space Station (ISS), which will be used for satellites in low Earth orbit so that they can be repaired and moved. Ukraine also produces rocket fuel, which is an important element. At the time of the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine produced a full range of space products, and these capabilities lasted until 2014. Later it did not have a full-fledged space program, but it had most of the elements. A lot of it was supplied by Russians and Belarusians – naturally, this cooperation stopped.

So Russia was dependent on Ukraine before?

It was a mutual dependence. Ukraine assembled missiles, adding some important components, but the main components were supplied by the Russians. And then the finished missiles were sent back to Russia or Kazakhstan or the United States.

So this industry has been in decline since the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s intervention in Donbas in 2014?

Of course, it was very dependent on the cooperation of public sectors, on political will – even in terms of selling products to the world. I have to admit that the Russians were the main force in marketing, space services are sold only by the big world powers: EU, USA, China, which have a finished product. Russia sold us these services. We made a rocket, but it is not a finished product, customers do not buy rockets, they buy cargo delivery to a particular orbit. This requires a rocket, a spaceport, a control center…

And at that time, the Falcon 9 rocket of SpaceX had just entered the market, which offered a much cheaper service.

Yes, and China too. Nothing lasts forever. The Chinese got help from the Russians, transferred some old Soviet technology – and thought it would stay with them. It’s just that the Chinese made tremendous progress, the Russians actually encouraged the development of their own competition.

But Ukraine also supplied engines to the US, didn’t it?

Not just engines, but the entire first stage of the American rocket “Antares” (one of the “trucks” for the ISS – ed.). We are talking about long-term cooperation with the American company Orbital, which is now part of the Northrop Grumman Corporation. Ukraine has already supplied more than two dozen stages. Ukraine also supplies engines for the fourth stage of the European Vega rocket. They are sent to Italy and the stage is assembled there. So Ukrainian power plants, as you can see, are recognized all over the world.

Source: Ukrinform

Probably, it stopped because of the war?

I would say that it is suspended. I can’t speak for them, but I assume they did something in advance, so the supplies did not stop immediately. But of course, if the war continues, it will probably jeopardize the supply. Unless they move production somewhere else, somewhere safe.

I understand that space and missile specialists have a new role in the war?

For sure. In addition to the civilian missile industry, Ukraine was developing a lot of military missile systems – for example, multiple launch rocket systems (like the Soviet-Czech Vampire or the American HIMARS – ed.), and there were several projects before the war. Some were frozen, others were slow, and now they can get a new impetus. There is also cooperation between Czechs and Ukrainians, we need ready-made subsystems to bring the product to the market faster. More countries would benefit from this, different components would be produced in different countries. We definitely cannot produce in Ukraine now, during the war.

Are you talking about any specific cooperation between the Czech Republic and Ukraine?

I have information that leading Czech companies in the missile industry cooperate with Ukrainian companies, but ask them, they probably would not want me to speak for them.

Why did you come to the Czech Republic?

I am here to promote the projects of our cluster. Now we are mainly working on a spacecraft for low orbit – a space tug. It is important to be able to put a satellite into a precise orbit, but even more important today is what they call the circular economy. We want to extend the life of space technology. Now, a satellite stays in orbit for five to seven years, sometimes longer – and during that time it may need to be upgraded as technology evolves rapidly. Our tug will also allow us to increase or change the orbit of the satellite, its inclination, and eventually bring it into the atmosphere for safe combustion. Some components are still under development, while others are ready for testing in space.

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