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Russia challenges NASA and ESA to demonstrate its strengths

Putin halts Soyuz launches from Guyana, warns Europe is key to Mars in 2022 and recalls its decisive role in the continuity of the ISS
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PHOTO/Kremlin  -   Dmitry Rogozin (left), Director General of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), shows President Putin the major launcher and space capsule projects of the great Eurasian country. 

Russia has reacted immediately to the second package of sanctions adopted by EU foreign ministers at their meeting on 25 February, and has just made public its first effective measure in response to the decisions agreed by the 27 European partners.

Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, announced on his official Twitter account that the agency "suspends cooperation with European partners in organising space launches from the Kourou Cosmodrome". 

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PHOTO/Roscosmos - The suspension of Soyuz rocket launches from the Kourou space base in the middle of the French Guiana jungle and the withdrawal of Russian technicians is a serious setback for ESA's plans.

In a tweet issued at 07:19 on 26 February, Rogozin said the move was "in response to EU sanctions against our companies". Among the Russian companies affected by the decisions agreed in Brussels by European countries is the giant state-owned industrial corporation Rostec.

Rostec brings together major companies involved in the development, production and export of combat aircraft - MiG and Sukhoi -, troop and cargo transport - Tupolev, Iliushin, Beriev -, passenger aircraft, civil and military helicopters, aircraft engines, heavy vehicles, light weapons - Kalashnikov assault rifles -, ammunition, electronics, optronics, spare parts and equipment for the defence, aviation and space sectors. 

To enforce the total shutdown of Soyuz rocket activities at the European space base in Kourou, French Guiana, Rogozin clarifies that Roscosmos is also "withdrawing its personnel, including launch equipment". Around 100 Russian technicians are needed to carry out on-site integration work on the three stages of each Soyuz rocket, as well as the planning, firing, tracking and control of each flight. 

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PHOTO/Arianespace-CNES-ESA -  A pair of Galileo satellites - Europe's GPS - is scheduled to fly from Kourou on 6 April to
 Delays in completing the Galileo navigation constellation

Vladimir Putin's reaction through his top space official paralyses Roscosmos' activities at the European base on the coast of Guyana. Preparations were already underway there for the first flight of the year of the Soyuz rocket that was to place a new pair of Galileo satellites - Europe's GPS - into orbit in early April, the European Union's major navigation and positioning constellation, which will suffer delays in being completed each week that the Russians remain idle.

The European Space Agency (ESA) may try to replace the Russian rocket with its new Vega C and Ariane 6 launchers, but the inaugural firing of both has not yet taken place. By contrast, the Soyuz family has accumulated more than 1,900 flights since 1966, the vast majority of which have been successful. Barring any surprises, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not expected to disrupt Roscosmos' scientific cooperation with NASA. In a statement issued on 24 February, the US agency said that Washington's new export control measures "will not affect its collaboration with Roscosmos on in-orbit operations and ground control of the International Space Station" (ISS). 

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PHOTO/ESA - Dmitri Rogozin has reminded Josef Aschbacher, ESA Director General, that the ExoMars 2022 mission depends on the Russian surface module, inside which the European rover Rosalind Franklin is travelling.

Nor is it to be expected that the war between Moscow and Kiev will harm the ExoMars 2022 programme, ESA's joint Mars exploration programme with Roscosmos. On the Twitter account of the Austrian Josef Aschbacher, ESA's director general, he said on 25 February that civilian cooperation with Roscosmos "despite the current conflict, remains a bridge (...) that allows work to continue on the ISS and the imminent journey to Mars".

The Russian side's responsibility for the ExoMars 2022 mission has been to build the surface module. From it, the Rosalind Franklin 6-wheel drive vehicle, which European industry has developed with significant Spanish participation, is to land on Martian soil. In this case, the planned launcher is a Russian Proton, which will take off from Baikonur in a window of opportunity from 20 September to 1 October, when the Earth and Mars are aligned and in optimal position.

But if politics erupts, ESA-Roscosmos collaboration plans are stalled and the liftoff deadline is missed, a new launch window will not be available until 26 months later. That is the period of time needed for the laws of celestial mechanics to allow the Earth and the Red Planet, separated by only 56 million kilometres, to align on the same side of the Sun. 

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PHOTO/Roscosmos - Vladimir Putin's most trusted politician, Dmitry Rogozin has been at the helm of one of Russia's most important crown jewels since May 2018, which he must revitalise as much as possible.
 Essential for keeping the ISS in orbit

Two days before giving the order to suspend Soyuz flights from French Guiana, Rogozin, 58, had publicly rebuked NASA Administrator Bill Nelson - an 80-year-old politician close to President Joe Biden - in half a dozen tweets. "Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS, or do you want to run the ISS yourself," he said.

Reason for the wake-up call. That Joe Biden, speaking at the White House on the same day as the invasion of Ukraine, had claimed that he would "degrade Russia's aerospace industry, including its space programme. The Roscosmos chief stressed to the NASA chief that "perhaps President Biden is unaware of the issue, so explain to him that correcting the orbit of the space station and avoiding dangerous collisions with space debris (...) is achieved thanks to the engines of Russian Progress cargo spacecraft". He continues: "If the United States blocks cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled departure from its orbit and falling on the United States or Europe?

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PHOTO/NASA - Bill Ingalls - Joe Biden's claim that he will downgrade Russia's space programme prompts the Roscosmos chief to write via Twitter that perhaps the US president is behaving irresponsibly.

He finishes his argument by writing that "there is also the option that the 500-tonne ISS structure could fall on India or China". "The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for it?" He concludes: "As a partner, I suggest that you do not behave like an irresponsible gambler and disavow the declaration of Alzheimer sanctions. This is friendly advice. There is no record of a response from Bill Nelson.  

The US and Russia remain the main partners of the ISS, which is kept in orbit by the upward thrust of the entire structure, which is lifted every three months by a Russian Progress supply ship. NASA, for its part, is also instrumental. It has installed the solar panels that generate the electrical power for the orbital complex, which makes it possible to work, experiment and maintain living conditions inside its habitable modules. 

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PHOTO/NASA - Rogozin tweets to octogenarian NASA administrator Bill Nelson that if Russia gives up orbital control of the ISS, the 500-tonne structure could fall on the US, Europe, India or China.

There are seven astronauts living on the ISS, currently six men and one woman from Expedition 66. They are the Americans Mark Vande Hei, Thomas Marshburn and Raja Chari and Kayla Barron, the German Matthias Maurer, representing ESA, and the Russians Piotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov. Despite Putin's stated push, it is highly unlikely that the Kremlin will abandon its human presence on the ISS before the end of 2024, a date confirmed by all project partners. If it does, it will be able to afford to travel into space with its manned capsules, but it would have no place to go until it sets up its own orbital complex or in collaboration with China. And that takes a lot of time... and a lot of money.