Should we be worried about Russian repression in the space industry?

It’s very similar to the hostage situation. Thirty-six satellites from London-based OneWeb, of which the British state is the capital, are currently waiting in the radome of a Russian Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. They were scheduled to take off this Saturday to complete the constellation of 428 satellites already in orbit that OneWeb is operating to develop high-speed internet around the world.

“Must” because the outbreak of war in Ukraine also shakes up the space industry. It is enough to understand this, to trace the thread of numerous threats of reprisals – and just repressions, more and more – launched in a flurry RoscosmosRussian space agency, and its short-tempered CEO Dmitry Rogozin on Twitter.

Broken schedule?

OneWeb has just paid its price: Russia is now conditional on the launch of 36 satellites by the British government leaving the company’s board of directors, as well as legal guarantees that these satellites will not be used for military purposes. This Thursday, OneWeb announced the suspension of all these launches from Baikonur.

Just one example of the upheavals that are taking place. Christian Mair, Fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Studies (FRS), also recalls the strong ties that have existed between the European Union and Russia since 1990 through the Union program. The Russian rocket is regularly used to send European missions into space. Be it from the Baikonur or Vostochny cosmodromes (Russia) or from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou (Guyana). Since 1999, there have been 37 flights from Russia and 27 from Kourou, Christian Mair calculates in a note published on the FRS website.

Not sure if there are others. In any case, Roskosmos has just suspended Soyuz launches planned from Kourou and recalled its 87 technical staff who worked there. Three launches are planned this year, according to a press release from the National Center for Space Research (Cnes) of the French space agency. Two for the European navigation constellation Galileo and one for the French spy satellite CSO-3. Here are three more programs that the war in Ukraine has put on hold.

Rosalind Franklin still have to wait?

What about Rosalind Franklin? The rover, at the heart of the second part of the ExoMars program, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) but with the active participation of the Russian agency, was supposed to go to the Red Planet in 2018 in search of traces of the past. life on its surface. Production delays have already delayed the launch to 2020, then 2022. It was scheduled for September from the Russian Proton launch vehicle… from Baikonur. “The very sharp deterioration in relations with Russia makes this launch unlikely,” the ESA said on Monday. The meeting, scheduled for Tuesday and next Wednesday, should decide the fate of this mission and possible alternatives. Olivier Sanguy, editor-in-chief of the space news site Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse, is struggling to figure out how the mission can be accomplished without the Russians. “They provide not only the launch vehicle to leave Earth, but also the scientific instruments aboard the rover and especially Kazachok, its landing platform on Mars,” he explains.

Olivier Sanguy could go on with the list of already noted or expected tensions caused by the war in Ukraine, from which even the International Space Station (ISS) no longer escapes. [lire encadré]. No wonder there are so many of them, “so much space is a world intertwined,” he stresses, pointing out that space players rarely embark on their programs alone.

Russia, not so significant?

In this game of cooperation, Russia plays a significant role. “This is one of the first forces of this very closed club, as it performs the full range of tasks, both civilian and military,” wrote Isabelle Sourbes-Verges, a geographer specializing in spatial geopolitics at the Alexandre-Coire Center (CNRS) in 2017. . , in a journal article national defense. Isabelle Sourbes-Verger highlighted the “unique skill niches” that Russia occupies. In particular, it was his Soyuz spacecraft, which at that time was the only one that delivered astronauts to the ISS.

This ten-year hegemony ended on November 16, 2020, with the first manned flight to the ISS by the American company Space X, founded by Elon Musk, with a Falcon 9 launch vehicle and a Crew Dragon capsule. As for Russian missiles, “they do not have such specifics that would allow them to perform tasks that no other launcher could handle,” Olivier Sangui points out. Which, by the way, emphasizes that the most powerful launcher to date is Space X’s Falcon Heavy. The cheapest option, he continues. This explains such cooperation between ESA and Roscosmos, so much so that the Soyuz was launched from Kourou. »

A war that reinforces the desire for spatial autonomy?

Cnes does not appear to be overly concerned about the suspension of Soyuz launches from Guyana. It is that in 2022 two new launchers should appear on the European market: Véga-C (light launcher) and especially Ariane 6 (medium and high power launcher), which should replace Ariane 5 and its 112 flights. On the clock. These imminent arrivals make it possible to consider “rescheduling European institutional launches,” the French space agency said on Wednesday.

Undoubtedly, this is the first consequence of the war in Ukraine that Olivier Sanguy then sees: it reinforces the desire of the space agencies for autonomy and sovereignty in their programs. “It has been several years since the United States entered into the prospect of strengthening its space industrial independence, while, for example, its Atlas V launch vehicle uses a Russian engine,” he explains. There is a similar concern in Europe, which is answered by the arrival of Ariane 6. Since its arrival at the head of the ESA [le 1er mars 2021]Josef Aschbacher is also pushing for the adoption of a future European manned flight program. This call was heard by Emmanuel Macron, who paved the way for the launch of such a program during the European Space Summit organized in Toulouse in mid-February.

Even the International Space Station (ISS) won the conflict?

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the International Space Station from an uncontrolled deorbit? From the very beginning of the conflict, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, launched a series of angry tweets about the future of the ISS in light of the international economic sanctions imposed on his country. [Lire notre article du 26 février].

Until then, however, despite these threats, “the ISS seems to have managed to remain a no man’s land,” Olivier Sanguy remarked on Thursday morning. And this is without taking into account a new press release from Roscosmos on the same day, which reported that from now on Russia will no longer cooperate with Germany in conducting joint experiments on the Russian segment of the ISS, one of the two parts of the station.

France could also face similar sanctions while “bilateral joint science programs aboard the ISS are still ongoing with Russia, in particular in the area of ​​space medicine,” Cnes said in a press release on Wednesday.