May 25, 2024

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The War in Ukraine: How Russia's Invasion Threatens Space Cooperation |  Ukraine and Russia

The War in Ukraine: How Russia’s Invasion Threatens Space Cooperation | Ukraine and Russia

The Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens to end decades of cooperation between Russia and Western countries, especially the United States, on space exploration projects.

Interplanetary probes and satellite launches have been affected, but nothing better symbolizes this potential split than the International Space Station (ISS).

Three Russian cosmonauts arrive at the International Space Station

The station was intentionally built with interconnected American and Russian units—meaning they need each other to thrive—and since 2000, it has been managed with significant contributions from the United States and Russia.

But it has become the subject of a war of words on social media with the head of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), Dmitry Rogozin.

In a series of publications since February 25, Rogozin has made a number of allegations, the most important of which is the suggestion that sanctions against Russia could cause the International Space Station to crash on Earth.

Russia controls critical aspects of the station’s propulsion systems, including those that prevent the hull from drifting into our planet’s atmosphere.

Recent disagreements contrast with a long history of space cooperation between Russia and the United States, including the 1975 joint landing of the Apollo-Soyuz mission.

Rogozin (who is also a former Russian deputy prime minister) has hinted that Russian cosmonauts could abandon the International Space Station and leave behind American astronaut Mark Vande Hee, who spent nearly an entire year aboard – nearly all flights are operated to and from The station by the Russians.

But Roscosmos distanced itself from Rogozin’s remarks, and “Roscosmos has never given reason to doubt its credibility as a partner,” the agency said in a statement on March 15.

The current ISS deal guarantees operations until 2024, but the United States is pushing for an extension to 2030. Russia – or rather Rogozin – suggested last December that it was not interested in remaining a partner beyond 2024.

Several agreements between Moscow and its counterparts such as the European Space Agency (ESA) have been frozen or suspended since the start of the war, most notably the launch of a European astronomical vehicle to Mars, which was supposed to fly with Russian assistance. Robot. rocket. The project has been suspended indefinitely by the European Space Agency.

Dmitry Rogozin (right), head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has been highly critical of the sanctions against Russia (Image: Getty Images/Via BBC)

“As an intergovernmental organization tasked with developing and implementing space programs with full respect for European values, we deeply regret the human losses and the tragic consequences of the aggression against Ukraine,” the European Space Agency said in a statement issued on 17 March.

“Recognizing the impact on the scientific exploration of space, the European Space Agency is fully in line with the sanctions that member states have imposed on Russia.”

Russia responded by withdrawing an agreement with the European Space Agency on joint launches from the Guyana Space Center. The partnership has resulted in 26 European satellites being put into orbit by Russian Soyuz rockets since 2011 – one such launch carried by the revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope last December.

Finally, Roscosmos announced on February 26 that it is ending NASA’s participation in the Venera D mission, which includes the launch of an orbiter and a lander to Venus in 2029.

“Let them fly on their brooms”

Moscow also said it would stop supplying missile engines to US companies.

“Let them fly on their brooms,” Rogozin told state news channel Rossiya 24 earlier this month.

In its latest public statement on the Ukraine crisis, the US space agency NASA downplayed Rogozin’s position.

“Other people working in the Russian civilian space program are professionals. They lose nothing to us, the American astronauts and American mission controllers,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on March 18.

In fact, Americans and Russians have been cooperating on space affairs for decades, despite the Cold War.

After the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, which Washington symbolically won by landing on the moon in 1969, representatives of the two countries literally shook hands in space in 1975 as part of the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission.

The partnership became extremely beneficial to NASA after the space shuttle program was retired: between 2011 and 2020, Russian rockets became the only way for American astronauts and many other aliens to go into space.

Although Space X, owned by American billionaire Elon Musk, began transporting astronauts to the International Space Station in 2020, this has not really changed the situation.

Many US operations still rely on Russian-made rocket engines – although NASA is currently developing a new rocket, the Vulcan, which will use engines made by the US company Blue Origin.

Tensions between Russia and its Western partners had already arisen before the invasion of Ukraine. Bleddyn Bowe, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester in the UK, explains that relations began to deteriorate after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“It was a change of direction, because when Russia started doing things that were previously unimaginable to European countries,” Bowie says.

While the expert is not surprised by Moscow’s retaliation, he does suggest that Russia has more to lose in the long run in terms of space policy.

Bow points out, “Russia has been a declining space power for some time because it failed to modernize important parts of its space industry.”

With the Russian economy under unprecedented sanctions, the space program is likely to suffer greatly.

Rocket launches are a valuable source of money for Roscosmos – one flight aboard a Russian manned flight cost NASA more than $90 million in 2020.

Space analysts believe that the turmoil caused by the conflict in Ukraine will increase Moscow’s desire to seek space partnerships in the East: Russia has already announced a series of plans for joint missions with China in 2021, which included the development of a base on the Moon.

In recent years, China has become an emerging space power with aspirations that rival the United States and Europe — Beijing, for example, hopes to have its own space station, Tiangong, in full operation by the end of the year.

China is not part of the ISS and has been officially banned from sending astronauts there since 2011, when the US Congress passed a law banning official US contact with China’s space program – a decision motivated by “national security concerns”.

But the impact of the myriad sanctions on the Russian economy could limit Moscow’s role in that partnership.

“China has a much more powerful space program than Russia,” says Professor John Logsdon, an expert on US space policy.

“It is Russia that needs China, not the other way around.”

NASA’s budget for 2022, for example, is $24 billion, nearly 10 times the budget of the Russian Space Agency, according to data released by the Russian parliament last October.

China’s space budget, which is not publicly available, has been estimated at about $9 billion in 2020.

Logdson believes that this investment gap could dictate a future in which Russia relegates to a secondary role in space exploration.

“The Russian space program has been in a losing position for some time now,” says the professor.

“It will likely be isolated unless China really accepts it.”