After the fall of the USSR, the Russian fleet of civilian telecommunications satellites quickly became obsolete.
As part of the Sphere project, Roscosmos intends to deploy satellites in very different orbits and exploit part of the existing military network to guarantee complete coverage of the territory of the Russian Federation and make broadband and high-speed service available to those countries intending to join the project.
The origins of the project
The challenge launched by satellite constellations, such as Starlink and O3b in the second decade of the 21st century, is to offer global low-latency internet access via increasingly cheaper and portable terrestrial terminals.
The next step would be a satellite service directed to the individual mobile user, which offers an entirely new way of accessing the web that could potentially be interpreted, by regimes particularly attentive to the content usable by their citizens, as a system to circumvent firewalls and other censorship tools.
On May 22, 2018, Roscosmos presented the Efir (ether) project, which envisaged a communications and Internet constellation in LEO consisting of 288 satellites positioned in an 870-kilometer orbit. It was also envisaged that Efir could use satellites in higher orbits and even solar-powered atmospheric transponder drones to carry signals across Russian territory.
The most difficult problem to overcome, for such an ambitious plan, was finding private investors for at least part of the estimated 299 billion rubles ($3.1 billion) needed to carry out the project through 2025.
Given the panorama of private investors present in the Russian Federation, the prospect of finding them to reach the necessary figure could have been more realistic. Even in the best-case scenario, the Efir system would come into operation too late to be competitive on the international market, and its global coverage was seen as a huge overkill for a service limited even to the vast Russian territory.
The President’s Statement in 2018
On June 7, 2018, President Putin made a surprising statement, implying federal approval of the Sphere program of over 600 satellites. In addition to borrowing its name from an ongoing military communications project that it apparently could absorb, the “new” Sphere has been described as a system of constellations of several communications and Earth remote sensing satellites.
In this way, Roscosmos has decided to create a centralized management structure for all multi-satellite constellations, centralizing the development and production capacity of the sector.
The Sfera program would include five civil communications constellations, including Skif, Yamal, Ekspress, Ekspress-RV, and Marathon, and five families of remote sensing satellites, including Piksel-VR, Berkut-VD, Berkut-XLP, Berkut-S, and Smotr.
Sfera also received the GMISS designation for Multifunctional Global Information and Communications Satellite System.
Meanwhile, the proposed constellation has been reduced from 542 to 380 satellites.
Sphere and the war economy
In 2022, the Ukrainian military demonstrated the multiple roles of the Starlink system on the battlefield, from voice communications to drone control. At the same time, Western satellite operators began to leave the Russian market, as Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine had escalated into a full-scale war.
Under these assumptions, the Sfera project could now claim more funding, however, the project was further scaled back to the financing of 162 satellites, despite claims that the Russian satellite requirement in LEO would be at least 622 spacecraft by 2030 and 924 satellites by 2035.
These rhythms required the radical transformation of the production processes of the various satellites involved with a high level of automation of the assembly lines even for the heaviest class satellites.
The probable foreign involvement
During his presentation at the meeting of heads of space agencies and space industry leaders of G20 countries in Bangalore, India on July 6 and 7, 2023, Yuri Borisov, head of Roscosmos, presented the Sphere project to partners Russians in the BRICS club and other countries, which would agree to cooperate with Russia, after the Ukraine crisis.
In April 2023, the Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Kazem Dzhalali, stated that his country would be interested in joining the Sphere project. The Iranian official expressed his interest in Sphere in the context of unwanted news about the possible invasion of Starlink operations in Iran, where the system could be used by government opponents.