The Russian invasion of Ukraine, launched a week ago, quickly burst onto the civilian space chessboard, bringing a brutal halt to cooperation between Moscow and the Western powers that began at the end of the Cold War. In response to European Union sanctions, the Russian space agency Roscosmos decided on Saturday to suspend its Soyuz launches from Kourou in French Guiana and to recall its team of around a hundred engineers and technicians.
Another collateral victim: the unfortunate Russian-European ExoMars mission, whose launch – already postponed to 2020 because of the Covid pandemic – was scheduled for September 2022. On Monday, the European Space Agency (ESA, 22 Member States) judged “very improbable” a take-off in this window of fire towards the red planet which only opens… every two years.
According to a millimeter choreography, the ESA rover Rosalind Franklin was to be transported by a Russian rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan, and to land on Martian soil using the “Kazatchok” lander, also Russian. A complex and specific interface, which will be long and costly to review.
“It’s heartbreaking for science and scientists who have forged links over the years and invested years of work”, reacts Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, director of research on space policies at the CNRS.
“Make room for the Russians”
A capital mission for the quest for traces of extraterrestrial life, ExoMars also symbolized the culmination of a partnership between space Europe and Russia started in 1996, explains this geographer to AFP. “After the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the disintegration of the USSR, the European and American states naturally sought to make room for the Russians” on the space chessboard, recalls an analyst of the European space sector, under cover of anonymity. Because there was no question of letting the know-how of such an emblematic space power crumble. The experience of manned flight on the Mir station has thus benefited the development of the International Space Station (ISS), the largest collaboration to date between the Western bloc and Russia in the stars. The idea, continues the expert, was also to build civil space cooperation as a “means of bringing nations together”.
At the time, some Russian scientists and industrialists also offered to become a member of ESA, says Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. “It was not possible to absorb such a large sector, but Europe very quickly sought to see what it could do with Russia”.
On the commercial level, it has “done everything to facilitate their access to space”, offering Soyuz an opening to the international market, recalls the expert. Since 2011, Arianespace has collaborated with the Russian agency Roscosmos to operate the Soyuz rocket from Kourou and Baikonur. Europe was “particularly proud to have succeeded in this cooperation”. But over the years relations have become strained, especially after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. To be finally swept away by the war in Ukraine.
Swirl in the ISS
It is difficult to predict the consequences of such a rupture, as the situation is changing rapidly. “Despite the current conflict, civil space cooperation remains a bridge,” ESA Director General Josef Acshbacher tweeted a week ago. But Thursday, Roscosmos announced to focus on the construction of military satellites, and put an end to joint scientific experiments in the ISS with Germany, which had just broken off its collaboration with Moscow – as did the CNRS. It is currently a German astronaut, Matthias Maurer, who stays in the Space Station, where he took over from the Frenchman Thomas Pesquet on behalf of the ESA – who did not comment.
NASA assured for its part that the United States and Russia always worked together “peacefully” in the ISS where the “teams always talk to each other”. While specifying to work on solutions to maintain the Station in orbit without the assistance of Russia.
It is therefore space science that risks suffering the most from the conflict – commercial launches, them, “will recover, since in any case Ariane 6 was supposed to replace Soyuz”, observes Isabelle Sourbès-Verger. On the Russian side, the country’s growing isolation risks further widening the “budget deficit from which science suffers” in the country, notes the researcher.
On Thursday, nearly 7,000 Russian scientists publicly spoke out against the war, which they see as scuttling ambitions to become “a great scientific nation”.
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