Russia has big plans for its space program despite international sanctions

Putin was quoted by the Russian state media news source TASS on Tuesday (April 12), which was “Cosmonautics Day” in Russia. The annual celebration honors the launch of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who on April 12, 1961, became the first person to reach space. Russia inherited the Soviet space program after the USSR dissolved in 1991.

Putin, who signed a law last year allowing him to stay in power until at least 2036, struck an optimistic tone about the future of Russia’s space program. “We will necessarily implement all mapped-out plans consistently and persistently, despite any difficulties and some attempts from outside to impede us in this movement,” Putin said in the TASS report, which translated his comments from Russian.

While Russia’s space sector falls behind, the commercial space industry outside Russia has grown more powerful. And now, some of those private space companies have become actors within the Ukraine conflict. US-based companies Maxar Technologies, Capella Space, and Planet Labs have provided satellite imagery of war zones and buildups of Russian forces.

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The UK-based OneWeb had planned a launch of 36 internet satellites on a Russian rocket on March 4, but Rogozin said Roscosmos would proceed only if the company guarantees the satellites won’t be used for military purposes and if the British government withdraws its stake in the company.

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There is some truth to what Rogozin is saying. NASA does rely on Russian propulsion to help control the International Space Station’s attitude, or position and orientation in space, and periodically boost the station on its orbit around Earth. Without Russia, NASA would have to engineer a new solution to help keep the station on the right path in space, so that the vehicle does not slowly fall out of orbit and enter Earth’s atmosphere.

“If the Russians walk away, then you’ve got this massive object that’s going to come back in randomly somewhere over the Earth,” Wayne Hale, former program manager of NASA’s Space Shuttle and a member of NASA’s Advisory Council, tells The Verge. However such a scenario would take quite a while to manifest, possibly giving NASA some time to devise an alternate solution. “It’s not like a week, it’ll probably be several years,” says Hale.

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Rather than agree to those demands, on March 3 OneWeb suspended that launch, plus all launches from the Baikonur spaceport. Elon Musk weighed in too, sending a truck full of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite dishes and user terminals to Ukraine, as some people, including the country’s vice prime minister, feared a loss of internet access. 

The “difficulties” and “attempts from outside” are likely allusions to the numerous international sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S. and other nations since Russia invaded Ukraine. 

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These sanctions are manifestations of international disapproval, which has led to the dissolution of many of Russia’s space partnerships. For example, Europe recently announced that it will no longer participate in Russia’s Luna series of robotic moon missions, nor will it launch the ExoMars rover Rosalind Franklin on a Russian rocket as previously planned. (The International Space Station, in which Russia is the chief partner alongside NASA, continues operations as usual, at least for now.)

In the TASS report, Putin said that Russia plans to continue its Luna-25 moon mission, which is scheduled to launch this year; a broadband satellite series called Sfera (Sphere); a “next-generation transportation spacecraft” and propulsion technologies focusing on nuclear capabilities in the coming years. He was quiet about military affairs in spaceflight, however, including recent reports that Russian forces are jamming GPS access in Ukraine.

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While space activities might seem literally above the fray, that’s not truly the case. As the Ukraine war continues, the escalating tensions between Europe, the United States, and Russia are having consequences for space agencies: In addition to getting into disputes about the future of the ISS, Russia is withdrawing from a European Space Agency spaceport and delaying its ExoMars program.

“The Soviet Union used to launch military ocean reconnaissance satellites powered by nuclear reactors,” Smith wrote in a recent post. But, she noted, there were several malfunctions with this series of satellites, called Kosmos. The most notable, in 1978, saw Kosmos 954 drop nuclear debris across 300 miles (482 kilometers) of northern Canada.

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With the country’s budgets and revenue getting squeezed, Russia’s own space program now appears poised to decline. At the same time, US-based private space companies have seen their role in the conflict grow, which risks turning commercial spacecraft into military targets.

It wasn’t always like this. The Soviet Union was a dominant space power at the beginning of the space race six decades ago. After the USSR collapsed, Roscosmos continued to play a major role, working with NASA and the ESA, even though most of the latter’s member countries are also part of NATO.

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 All three agencies have been partners at the ISS since the 1990s. Russia has long operated one of the main segments of the station, and the newest modules to dock—including the Nauka science module—came from Russia just last year. After NASA retired the space shuttle program in 2011, the agency’s astronauts had to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the station.

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Putin also pointed to space collaborations with Belarus, a close military ally of Russia, in remote sensing as well as “developing the town of Tsiolkovsky and the Vostochny spaceport.” He predicted this measure would soon pass the upper house of his government, “following which, naturally, a new law will be signed.”

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But the war in Ukraine now strains—or may even sever—relationships between Russia and other spacefaring nations. On February 25, in response to European sanctions, Roscosmos announced it would “suspend cooperation” with the ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, where high-profile missions like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Planck space observatory have launched. They have withdrawn their workforce and halted Soyuz launches there. 

Putin’s comments came after he met Tuesday with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Russia’s far eastern Amur region, according to the Washington Post. As for Putin’s discussions of government procedure, U.S. President Joe Biden strongly disagreed that these decisions are democratic. Biden said Tuesday that Putin is a “dictator” who “commits genocide”, according to CNN.

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Then the ESA announced that its ExoMars program will likely be delayed again. The latest stage of the mission involves bringing the Rosalind Franklin rover to the planet’s surface, where it will search for signs of past life. The rover’s launch had already been delayed once, and it was slated for a late September 2022 launch on a Russian Proton rocket at Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome spaceport in Kazakhstan.

The next launch window to the Red Planet opens in late 2024. In response to WIRED’s interview requests, an ESA spokesperson said, “We are unable to comment on the crisis at the moment.” But the agency’s director general tried to take an upbeat tone in a public message on Twitter, saying “Notwithstanding the current conflict, civil space cooperation remains a bridge.” 

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But NASA is no longer totally dependent on Soyuz spacecraft to reach the ISS, and US companies are moving away from using Russian rockets. Since 2020, NASA astronauts have been flying up on SpaceX Crew Dragons.

For years, the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has been using Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for their first-stage Atlas 5 rocket—including for the new US weather satellite launched on Tuesday. But soon they will no longer be dependent on those as they develop their new Vulcan rocket, which will use BE-4 engines made by the US-based Blue Origin. The first batch of those new engines is scheduled to be delivered this year.

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TASS and other Russian state news sources are the only easily accessible forms of news for most Russian residents, as the government recently cracked down on democratic expression in the press. Most international outlets have closed down their Russian bureaus or moved journalists out of concern for their reporters’ safety, according to The Guardian.

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Roscosmos also announced it will no longer supply rocket engines to the United States. “Let them fly on their brooms,” Rogozin said on a state-owned Russian news channel. 

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As of now, there’s no reason to worry about the demise of the ISS. Both NASA and Roscosmos say they are still working to keep the space station afloat. “NASA continues working with all our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the ongoing safe operations of the International Space Station,” Josh Finch, a NASA spokesperson, said in an email to The Verge.

“The new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space cooperation. No changes are planned to the agency’s support for ongoing in orbit and ground station operations.” Roscosmos also acknowledged in a statement to The Verge amid the early hours of the invasion on Thursday that the two organizations are still working together.

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“Maybe President Biden is off topic, so explain to him that the correction of the station’s orbit, its avoidance of dangerous rendezvous with space garbage, with which your talented businessmen have polluted the near-Earth orbit, is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships,” Rogozin tweeted.

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“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours.”

About the author

Naqvi Syed

Naqvi Syed is is a freelance journalist who has contributed to several publications, including Spacepsychiatrist. He tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. He works with Spacepsychiatrist from a long time.


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