The European Space Agency is due to launch its Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover on a Russian rocket this September, while satellites belonging to a company part-owned by the UK government are set to catch a Russian ride on 4 March
25 February 2022
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have a knock-on effect for space activities, with major uncertainties around an upcoming European Mars rover and the launch of satellites for UK company OneWeb, which is part-owned by the UK government.
One of the leading questions so far has been whether Russia’s partnership with NASA on the International Space Station (ISS) can continue. Currently, seven astronauts – four from the US, two from Russia and one from Germany – are aboard the station. Four more private astronauts from the US, Israel and Canada are set to launch to the ISS on a SpaceX vehicle next month.
NASA has so far said that the ISS won’t be affected, despite heavy incoming sanctions for Russia from nations across the world. “The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation,” the agency said in a statement. “No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.”
Russia’s previous invasions of Crimea in 2014 and Georgia in 2008 didn’t result in a change to ISS operations, though on 24 February, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Rosocosmos, tweeted a warning that US sanctions against Russia could “destroy” cooperation over the ISS.
There is much more uncertainty for European space projects. Russia is set to launch two key missions for the European Space Agency (ESA). The first is its flagship Rosalind Franklin rover, which is part of the ExoMars programme and is due to blast off in September in search of life on the Red Planet. The second is the Euclid space telescope, which is designed to study dark matter and dark energy and is scheduled for launch in early 2023.
“Russia would get a lot of credibility from being involved in a Mars mission,” says Chris Lee, former chief scientist at the UK Space Agency. “How can we sanction that when there is a war taking place in Ukraine?”
The rover had already been delayed from 2020, partly because of the coronavirus pandemic. If it were delayed again to avoid Russian cooperation, the next window for launch would be in 2024. But Russia was also set to supply the landing system for the rover, so a new one would have to be developed from scratch. “I’d be very surprised if they could do all that within two years,” says Lee.
Josef Aschbacher, ESA’s director general, said for now the collaborations would continue. “Civil space cooperation remains a bridge. ESA continues to work on all of its programmes, including on ISS and ExoMars,” he tweeted. “We continue to monitor the evolving situation.”
The satellite firm OneWeb faces the most immediate challenge. The company, which the UK government owns a £370 million stake in, is in the process of deploying a megaconstellation of satellites that can beam the internet around the world. So far, more than 400 satellites have been flown on 13 launches, all on Russian Soyuz rockets. At least five more launches are scheduled, including one on 4 March from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome launch site in Kazakhstan.
“The launch campaign is in the final stages,” says Anatoly Zak, editor of website RussianSpaceWeb.com. “Much of the work is done, so who knows what will happen. It looks like it is proceeding at this point.” Both OneWeb and the UK government declined to comment on the situation, although the UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson said in the House of Commons on 24 February that it was “hard to see” how scientific collaboration with Russia could continue as normal.
The conflict raises significant questions about future collaborations with Russia in space, including NASA’s current goal of returning astronauts to the moon, a programme that many international partners have signed up to join – but not Russia. “There’s a good chance the ISS will persist,” says Brian Weeden at space advocacy organisation Secure World Foundation. “Unfortunately, the prospects of US-Russia space cooperation beyond the ISS are pretty dim.”
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