Russia’s war on Ukraine has caused lasting damage to international spaceflight cooperation (Image Credit: Space.com)
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions homeless and displaced and billions of dollars of damage in infrastructure. The conflict has also had less immediate but significant impacts on other areas, including on the space industries of Ukraine and Russia, but also globally in terms of the launch market, spaceflight activity and international cooperation.
In the wake of the start of the conflict on Feb. 24, 2022, and resulting international backlash against Russia, the then-head of the Russian space agency Dmitry Rogozin threatened to end its cooperation with the West on the International Space Station (ISS) program over sanctions imposed on Russia. He also issued a threat to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk for the company’s role in providing connectivity through its Starlink satellites.
Rogozin has since been removed as head of Roscosmos and replaced by Yuri Borisov. This has seen ties between NASA, the lead ISS participant, and Russia stabilize. “So far the ISS has proven to be remarkably resilient to geopolitics,” said Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning for Secure World Foundation. “I think that’s because both the US and Russia have a lot to lose if the partnership is severed, so for now both sides are willing to work it out and keep things going.”
Beyond this however, serious damage has been done to Russia’s ability to participate in international space ventures.
“The biggest impact is likely to be on the next human spaceflight missions after ISS comes to an end,” says Weeden. “The Russians have created a lot of ill-will not only in their actions in Ukraine but also by their actions in many of the multilateral fora (like the UN) over the last 9 years.”
Even China — which in 2021 announced a Sino-Russian plan for a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) — may have some doubts. Its space officials did not mention Russia (opens in new tab) when presenting its lunar plans and opportunities for international partners at a major space conference last fall, according to Time.
“Russia’s options are to either work with China or go it alone. For now it seems like they’re picking the former option, if only because they probably can’t afford to go it alone,” Weeden says.
Access to space has also become a big issue for some countries and companies, with access to Russian launch vehicles such as the venerable Soyuz being shut off almost overnight.
“The start of the war in Ukraine has had an impact on the launch opportunities of international space actors. Europe has been particularly impacted,” says Mathieu Bataille, a research fellow at the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI).
“For instance, several launches of institutional satellites for European countries and ESA were canceled in 2022 due to the sanctions.”
The joint ESA-Russia ExoMars mission carrying the Rosalind Franklin rover that had been scheduled to launch during fall 2022 was an early casualty of the fallout. The mission is now not expected to fly until 2028.
Combined with the delays of the Ariane 6, the impending retirement of the Ariane 5 and the recent failure of Vega-C, the cancellation of Soyuz flights means that Europe has virtually no independent access to space in the coming months.
Russia’s war has also heavily affected its capacity to conduct missions for commercial customers, Bataille noted. Since the invasion only one commercial satellite has been launched by the country — for Angola.
“Russia has launched only 46 satellites since the start of the conflict. By comparison, in 2021, 339 satellites were launched from Russia, including 302 for commercial customers, with most of them for OneWeb. Overall, the country’s launch activities served 18 countries.”
Notably, broadband satellite internet service provider OneWeb had been using Soyuz rockets to build its megaconstellation. Russia removed 36 Oneweb satellites from a Soyuz rocket in March 2022, and the company has since turned to SpaceX and Indian launchers to get its satellites into orbit.
But there is not enough space on rockets for everyone looking to reach orbit. Though China’s launch rate has grown dramatically in recent years, technology export rules often mean that Chinese launchers are not an option for many.
“In general, launch service providers around the globe announced that it may be difficult to accommodate all the customers that were planned to launch with Russian rockets. Therefore, we may expect some delays in the missions to come,” says Bataille.
The international launch market is slowly adjusting to the new landscape, but there appears to be lasting damage to international cooperation.
Russia is looking at building its own independent space station for use after it pulls out of the ISS. This may prove challenging while facing isolation and budgetary pressures. Moscow has considered sending cosmonauts to China’s Tiangong space station, but that would also pose complex challenges.
The Soviet Union became the first space power in 1957 when it sent Sputnik 1 into the unknown. But post-Soviet Russia’s role in space going forward appears to be heavily curtailed by its terrestrial incursions.
“I think it’s very unlikely the US, Europe, Japan, or Canada will partner with Russia again, or at least for a while,” says Weeden. “As I understand it, the Russians are not involved in either Artemis or Gateway programs.”