War in Ukraine disrupts Russian-European Mars mission and other space ventures

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Russia has long been a power in spaceflight, developing the workhorse Soyuz rocket system and building major parts of the International Space Station. But its invasion of Ukraine has created obstacles for its partnerships with the U.S. and European nations.

“We may well be looking at a situation where post-Cold war space cooperation and collaboration have finally collapsed,” University of Alberta science historian Robert Smith said, adding that it was unclear whether the current strain on international ties would lead to a permanent break. Over time, he said, Russia could end up working more with China in space-related projects, while the U.S. and Europeans become more closely aligned.

Officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said the agency’s work with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, hasn’t been disrupted, including their joint operations aboard the space station.

The European Space Agency, or ESA, said Thursday that it would suspend its cooperation with Roscosmos for the remainder of their joint ExoMars mission. The two-phase project, which sent an orbiter to Mars in 2016, aims to launch a rover there to search for signs of life.

“We need to see how we can unravel and disconnect the Russian contribution from the European one,” ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said of the mission in a Friday interview. The agency is reassessing joint activities with Russia, some of which date to the 1990s, when the country was starting to engage with the broader Western world.

ExoMars was the biggest cooperative project between Roscosmos and the ESA, according to Dr. Smith. Roscosmos contributed scientific instruments for the mission, built the rover’s landing platform and offered to launch the rover on one of its rockets. Now those Russian elements need to be replaced, Dr. Aschbacher said.

The rover had been expected to launch between Sept. 20 and Oct. 1. But the ESA’s Thursday announcement puts that schedule on hold. Dr. Aschbacher said that if the global geopolitical situation were to resolve, the mission could launch in 2024 with Russia, adding that he sees that scenario as unlikely.

One workaround would be “a completely European redevelopment,” or working with NASA to continue ExoMars, Dr. Aschbacher said. Either option means the earliest possible launch would come in 2026. Earth’s and Mars’ orbits are aligned in such a way that launch windows open up every 26 months.

Roscosmos didn’t respond to a request for comment, but its director general said Thursday in a social media post that the agency would mount its own research mission to Mars.

On Feb. 26, German scientists switched off the country’s ROSITA X-ray telescope, part of a sun-orbiting space observatory that its space agency jointly runs with Roscosmos. The move came after Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research said it was suspending scientific cooperation with Russia. Andrea Merloni, eROSITA’s project scientist and an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, said the telescope is now in “safe mode,” meaning it is no longer collecting scientific data. But it could be switched back in a matter of hours, he added.

Russia is continuing to map the cosmos using its ART-XC X-ray telescope aboard the observatory, the ART-XC project head told the Russian state news agency TASS. On March 1, TASS reported that Roscosmos planned to bill “the European side” of the project for losses related to the safe-mode switch.

Roscosmos, meanwhile, cut the U.S. out of its Venera D mission to Venus, which planned to launch in 2029. Following international sanctions, the agency’s director general tweeted on Feb. 26 that U.S. participation would be “inappropriate.”

NASA didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The conflict in Ukraine is also hamstringing space agencies and satellite operators that had planned to launch satellites and telescopes aboard Soyuz rockets. Those rockets aren’t available now, rocket-industry executives said, at least for some customers.

OneWeb, a satellite company partly owned by the British government, earlier this month suspended operations at a Russian-controlled launch facility in Kazakhstan—where it had tapped Soyuz rockets to get satellites to space. OneWeb didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Other missions that had planned to use Soyuz rockets to get to space are now looking for different vehicles. Those include ESA’s Euclid space telescope, which will orbit the sun for at least six years and help astronomers better understand dark energy, the force accelerating the universe’s expansion, and dark matter, the invisible cousin of matter that makes up a quarter of the universe.

On Thursday, the ESA said it was assessing alternative launch options for Euclid. Four other ESA missions also need alternative launch vehicles, Dr. Aschbacher said.

A Swedish research satellite called Mats won’t be launched on a Soyuz rocket either and finding another provider could delay the mission, according to a spokesman for the Swedish National Space Agency.

The French company Arianespace SAS has said it would work closely with customers and European authorities after it suspended Soyuz launches. Arianespace has offered Soyuz flights from the European spaceport in French Guiana, where Roscosmos suspended operations in February, and worked with Russian entities on Soyuz launches from the site in Kazakhstan.

“There is likely to be a bit of a bottleneck happening in the launch area. We are talking to some customers who are worried,” said Dan Hart, chief executive at Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc., which launches satellites from a modified Boeing 747 airplane.

Peter Beck, chief executive of launch provider Rocket Lab USA Inc., said the invasion has put new pressure on his company as it develops a rocket called Neutron meant to compete for missions with Russia’s Soyuz rocket and other vehicles. Rocket Lab expects to first launch Neutron no sooner than late 2024.

“There’s a whole lot of people kind of scratching their heads to figure out how they’re going to get to orbit,” he said.

 

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