As we’ve all watched in horror the advent of war in Ukraine and been deeply moved by the scale of the human tragedy unfolding, another crisis has been taking place, this time in space. The European and American space agencies’ reliance on Russian space technology to support various parts of their space programs has always been viewed as imprudent by some, especially given Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. Yet, further integration with Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, has continued throughout the years. Now, with Russia being hit by unparalleled economical and geopolitical sanctions, Roscosmos’ involvement with Western space agencies has come to an abrupt stop. This will have profound implications for years to come.
Let’s start with America. Both launchers Antares and Atlas 5 use Russian engines and they still had a busy launch schedule ahead. This is now uncertain given the fact that the Russian technicians are now gone. The Cygnus cargo ship used to supply the ISS, and developed by Northrop Grumman Space Systems also uses Russian parts. To make matters worse, the ULA Vulcan Centaur which was supposed to replace the Atlas 5 and Antares has been plagued with problems mainly due to Blue Origin’s inability to provide a flight certified engine in the last 5 years; it is expected to provide only one engine this year.
This means that the US is in a dire situation with regards to getting anything into space - the US military alone has given 60% of their launches to ULA. Yes, there is SpaceX, but satellites are designed to fit into the vehicle that launches them into space so a change in launch systems will be costly and lead to delays. And then there’s the ISS, built mostly by the US. If Russia does not boost the ISS to a higher orbit, as they have threatened to do, it will slowly fall back to Earth within 6 months. Cygnus could be used to boost the ISS although this has never been tried.
Compared to the US though, the effect of Roscomos’ ban on the European space program is simply disastrous. For a start, there was a program that allowed Russian Soyuz rockets to launch from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana’s Kourou. These launches have now been suspended as Russia has withdrawn more than 100 of its workers from Kourou. Unfortunately, the satellites that were planned for launch on a Soyuz this year face an uncertain future; these include two Galileo Satellites, a European-Japanese observation satellite called EarthCARE, a French military reconnaissance satellite (one wonders), and ESA’s Euclid space telescope whose mission is to measure with great accuracy the acceleration of the universe and help astronomers better understand what lurks behind dark energy.
As for the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin which was planned to launch this September from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan by a Russian Proton Rocket, then taken down to the Martian soil by Russia’s Kazachok lander, the launch has been scrapped; the next launch window will be at the later part of 2024, far too soon to integrate the rover on a new launch and landing platform. Sadly, it might never be able to get off the ground.
All these delays and cancelled missions will have numerous knock-on effects on budgets and will impact the development of future missions. As an example, the US relies heavily on ESA’s capabilities for the sample return mission which will bring back to Earth samples taken by the Perseverance rover on Mars. Now with the ExoMars rover going nowhere, there are doubts that ESA can execute such a complex sample return mission without any previous experience on Mars surface missions. Expect more problems of the same vein in the coming future as the ripple effect of this crisis spreads throughout the industry.
Compared to the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, all this might seem to pale in comparison; yet, the setbacks described above will be impacting our ability to further understand the world around us, and as such, will be a loss for us all.