Eight ways Russia’s war in Ukraine is affecting space exploration

Moscow is looking increasingly isolated in the sector as many countries suspend co-operation agreements

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A sector that was always shielded from political struggles on ground is becoming increasingly vulnerable after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Sanctions imposed on Russia by the US, the UK, the EU and Japan are affecting activities in space as Russia suspended co-operation with many countries in response to the sanctions.

Germany suspended all scientific co-operation with Russia, which also stopped all Soyuz rocket launches from a French Guiana spaceport.

The National highlights eight ways space exploration is being affected.

Launch of UK’s OneWeb satellites cancelled

Russia has refused to launch 36 OneWeb satellites, which belong to a UK start-up.

It gave the company an ultimatum to sever links with the UK government for the launch to go ahead, but the company refused.

A Soyuz rocket with the satellites of British start-up OneWeb is removed from a launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 4, 2022. Reuters

Russia’s demands were in response to sanctions imposed on it by the UK.

On March 4, the satellites were removed from the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The cosmodrome has been the launch site for Soviet and Russian rockets since the country began to explore space in 1957.

OneWeb said it would no longer be using Russian Soyuz rockets for its launches.

ExoMars mission launch 'unlikely'

The European Space Agency announced that the launch of the joint ESA-Russian ExoMars mission is unlikely to go ahead in September.

The mission had been in development for many years and was one of the biggest joint projects by Russia and Europe, apart from the International Space Station.

“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our member states,” ESA said. “Regarding the ExoMars programme continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.”

ESA built the Rosalind Franklin rover for the mission and Russia contributed the rover’s landing platform and several science instruments.

The mission was supposed to lift-off on Russia’s Proton rocket.

Political struggles reach International Space Station

Since the space station was put in orbit 20 years ago, it was always protected from political instability.

But as Russia continues to respond aggressively against sanctions imposed on it, the future of co-operation on the ISS is being threatened.

Russia’s space agency Roscosmos announced that it was suspending all scientific collaboration with Germany on the space station.

There are seven astronauts on the ISS right now, including four Americans, two Russians and one German.

The ISS is a joint project by Russia, the US, Japan, Canada and the ESA.

Operations on the ISS cannot stop right away, with both the American and Russian segments depending on each other. The US relies on the Russian segment of the station for propulsion while the Russians receive electrical power from the US segment.

However, Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin did threaten that they could let the station fall back to Earth.

“If you block co-operation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or … Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-tonne structure [on] India and China,” he tweeted.

“Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?”

Soyuz rocket launches from European spaceport suspended

Russia suspended all of its operations from the European spaceport in French Guiana in response to the sanctions imposed by the EU.

Roscosmos used to launch its Soyuz rockets from there. European company Arianespace also launches its rockets from French Guiana.

The Russian space agency withdrew all its employees — 87 in total — from the launch site that supported Soyuz launches.

The suspension has resulted in uncertainty over the fate of future launches, including two European Galileo navigation satellites that were scheduled to be put in orbit in April and another pair later in the year.

Germany switches off space telescope on Russian satellite

The eRosita telescope, funded by the German Aerospace Centre and Roscosmos, was put into safe mode after Germany announced it would no longer be involved in scientific collaboration with Russia.

The telescope had been studying black holes since it was launched in 2019 aboard a Russian-built Spectrum-Roentgen Gamma satellite.

“All collaboration activities with Russian institutions on current projects or projects in the planning stage will be terminated,” the German Aerospace Centre said. “There will be no new projects or initiatives with institutions in Russia.”

SpaceX prioritising cyber defence for its satellites

Billionaire Elon Musk had announced that SpaceX would be prioritise cyber defence and ways to overcome signal jamming to protect its Starlink internet satellites and its users.

The company activated the Starlink satellite broadband service in Ukraine, after a plea from Kyiv to provide the embattled country with stations.

But Mr Musk issued a warning that it was the only non-Russian communications service still operating in Ukraine, and the likelihood of it “being targeted was high”.

“SpaceX reprioritized to cyber defence and overcoming signal jamming. Will cause slight delays in Starship and Starlink V2,” he tweeted.

Russia stops supplying rocket engines to US

Mr Rogozin said that his country would no longer supply rocket engines to American companies.

These include the RD-180 engines that power the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas C rocket and the RD-181 engines that power the Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket.

He said that the “US can fly on their brooms”, a phrase that quickly went viral in the space community, with SpaceX referring to one of their rockets as “American broomstick” during a live stream of a launch.

Twitter feud between Russia’s space chief and US astronaut

Russia’s space chief blocked US astronaut Scott Kelly after a feud between the two on Twitter.

Mr Kelly, who spent a year living on the space station, criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Mr Rogozin’s threats to pull out of the ISS.

“Get off, you moron!” Mr Rogozin said in a tweet that was later deleted. “Otherwise, the death of the International Space Station will be on your conscience.”

Mr Kelly replied in Russian, asking him why he deleted his tweet.

“Don't want everyone to see what kind of child you are?” Mr Kelly said.

Updated: March 10, 2022, 6:55 AM
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