The conflict in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia which followed are disrupting the space landscape, going so far as to call into question co-operative exploration missions while the ISS is trying to remain neutral ground.
Since 24 February, the massive intervention of Russian military forces in Ukraine has triggered an international crisis in addition to the procession of horrors of the war. The space world, both industrial and that of scientific missions has been affected as has rarely been seen.
The ISS is Trying to Remain Neutral Ground
400 km above the Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) combines five space agencies: NASA for the United States, Roscosmos for Russia, the European Space Agency, JAXA for Japan and the Canadian Space Agency.
Currently, the orbital complex is hosting the seven members of Expedition 66 with two Russians, four Americans and one European (ESA’s Matthias Maurer).
The Commander is the Russian Anton Shkaplerov, Colonel of the Air Force, born in Ukraine in 1972 during the Soviet Union. The seven astronauts know each other well since they often trained together on the ground for this mission. The main idea is to do everything so that geopolitical tensions do not find their way up there. Moreover, cooperation on the ISS has already overcome a serious crisis in the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.
However, the situation of 2022 seems unprecedented because of the conflict on the ground and the reactions of Russia to sanctions, particularly via the declarations of Dimitri Rogozin, the boss of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. On Twitter, he mentioned the uncontrolled fall from orbit of the ISS and the risk it may fall onto the United States or Europe. The message was sometimes interpreted as a direct threat. In fact, Rogozin was reminding us that the station cannot be controlled by the Americans alone. Indeed, the Russian segment, with the Zarya module, maintains the orbit of the ISS, while electrical energy mainly comes from solar panels on the American side. In addition, there are other technical interdependencies.
Several NASA officials, including Kathy Lueders, who is head of crewed flights, repeated that the principle of cooperation on the ISS is not in question. However, Dimitri Rogozin stated on 2 March that “we will closely monitor the actions of our American partners and, if they continue to be hostile, we will return to the question of the existence of the International Space Station.” Could the neutral ground status of the ISS then be brought into question?
It should be noted that of the four Americans of Expedition 66 Mark Vande Hei, who arrived by Russian Soyuz MS-18 in April 2021, is due to return on another Soyuz (MS-19) at the end of March 2022 along with Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov. The landing will occur on the plains of Kazakhstan.
Update on 3 March: On 3 March, a tweet by Roscosmos indicated that in response to German sanctions, the Russian agency wanted to end joint experiments aboard the ISS with Germany.
Other space cooperations have, however, already suffered from international tensions. In response to European sanctions, all Russian staff working at the Guyana Space Centre (GSC) have been instructed to return home. Indeed, the Soyuz launches in cooperation with Arianespace from Guyana have become impossible. In early April, a Soyuz was to take off from GSC to put into orbit two satellites for Galileo, the European geolocation system. This mission now seems to be cancelled. However, Galileo is working well and with around thirty active satellites, does not have any immediate need for these additional two satellites. As regards this situation, the French Space Agency, CNES, has noted that “the imminent arrival of the new Vega-C and Ariane 6 launchers on the market allows us to consider reprogramming European institutional launches.”
The exploration of the red planet, under the banner of cooperation between the European Space Agency and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, now seems to be compromised. The Rosalind Franklin rover of the Russian-European mission, ExoMars 2022 was designed to drill into the Martian surface up a depth of 2 m, which has never been done. It is due to take off atop a Russian Proton from Baikonur in September to reach the fourth planet next year. Its landing platform is also Russian. ESA officially communicated on 28 February that sanctions and the general context “make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.” The next slot for a take-off to Mars will require a wait of two years at best. CNES indicated on 2 March that “various possible options are currently being examined inside ESA.”
Another, more immediate, launch, finds itself caught in the geopolitical turmoil. On 5 March, a Soyuz is due to take off from Baikonur to place around thirty OneWeb satellites into orbit, the web connectivity constellation which belongs to the United Kingdom and the Indian group Bharti Enterprises. Dimitri Rogozin personally demanded from OneWeb a guarantee that there would be no military use, then added that the United Kingdom would have to withdraw from the company’s capital, a condition to which the British Government is not going to submit. The launch (which has already been paid for) will very likely be cancelled. On his Twitter feed, the boss of Roscosmos has posted a video showing the launch pad staff busy hiding the flags of the OneWeb partner countries with white stickers.
Стартовики на Байконуре решили, что без флагов некоторых стран наша ракета будет краше выглядеть. pic.twitter.com/jG1ohimNuX
— РОГОЗИН (@Rogozin) March 2, 2022
A War of Images, Particularly from Satellites
Concealing the flags shows that, like all conflicts, this war is also being fought in the field of images and communication. The American company SpaceX has thus sent Starlink reception terminals to Ukraine, ensuring that its satellite constellation is optimised so that the territory is covered and thus connected to the web. With this, Elon Musk’s firm has achieved a PR coup, while stressing the vital importance of the rapid dissemination of information in modern wars.
The other images involved are those collected by Earth observation satellites, capable of detailing troop movements, crucial insights for military operations. The Maxar company has even published several of these focused on Russian troop movements.
#Ukraine De nouvelles images des satellites à très haute résolution de la société américaine @Maxar montrent de longs convois de véhicules militaires russes au nord de #Kiev et autour de #Kharkiv #RussiaUkraine #StandingWithUkraine #EarthObservation pic.twitter.com/IwAbJG0Jyh
— Regards sur la Terre (@RegardSurTerre) March 1, 2022
The Ukrainian conflict has thus spilled over from the country’s borders to reach even into space in several ways. And this article is not about drawing up an exhaustive list, the more so that the news stories in question move on very quickly.