A Soyuz-2.1b rocket booster with a Fregat upper stage and satellites of British firm OneWeb is lifted to a launchpad in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, March 2, 2022. Photo: Roscosmos/Reuters
This article was written on March 3, 2022, and its facts may not reflect the current ground situation in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been strange from a space perspective. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the state corporation that offers spaceflight from Russia, has been quite an active component of the Russian state reaction to sanctions imposed on Russia for the latter’s decision to invade Ukraine.
I have not seen space being such an important part of a state’s reaction to such sanctions. Usually, space relations are cold only at worst, and sometimes cooperation in the space sector continues even if the countries to which the two agencies belong have a poor relationship.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin formally began his invasion of Ukraine on February 23, 2022, US President Joe Biden announced sanctions, including those designed to affect the Russian aerospace sector. Rogozin replied to this announcement via Twitter. (The thread is in Russian.)
Байден заявил, что новые санкции коснутся российской космической программы. Ок. Остается выяснить детали:
1. Вы хотите перекрыть нам доступ к радиационностойкой микроэлектронике космического назначения? Так вы это уже сделали вполне официально в 2014 году.
— РОГОЗИН (@Rogozin) February 24, 2022
One of the tweets in the thread referred to India and China, and this was reported widely in the Indian media at least. According to Google Translate, it said:
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. Are you ready for them? Gentlemen, when planning sanctions, check those who generate them for illness.
When read like this, it seems that Rogozin is discussing an “option” to drop the International Space Station (ISS) over India or China. The ISS weighs 450 tonnes, and should it crash over a populated area, it could kill many thousands of people. However, the translation reads better in context if “option” is replaced with “chance”.
In previous tweets in the same thread, Rogozin mentioned that sanctions on Russia could compromise Russia’s ability to conduct station-keeping onboard the ISS. Station-keeping is a way to keep an object in its orbit, in this case the low-Earth orbit. Rogozin had tweeted that if the Russian segments of the ISS weren’t available for station-keeping, there were chances that the station could re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over the US, Europe, India or China. (The ISS’s orbit passes over these countries, but not Russia.)
However, despite the rhetoric, Roscosmos performed the required station-keeping operations on February 26, 2022.
Well, Rogozin isn’t dumping ISS in the sea just yet. Progress MS-18 made a regular 1 km orbit boost of the station at 0122 UTC Feb 26 https://t.co/h5NbPdLBDe
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) February 26, 2022
If it hadn’t, it appears Elon Musk was interested in stepping up to do the honours.
There were other measures Roscosmos had taken in response to the sanctions, like withdrawing Russian scientists and engineers from the offices of Arianespace’s Guiana Space Center. Its actions have also affected the in-orbit Spektr RG mission and the planned ExoMars and Venera D missions.
Then there is the OneWeb launch, which has been rendered doubtful now. OneWeb is a multinational company that aims to provide broadband satellite internet. India-based Bharti Enterprises has a majority ownership (42.2%) of it. The French satellite company Eutelsat owns 22.9% of the company.
Even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine wore on, Roscomos tweeted on February 28 that preparations were on for the next OneWeb launch, scheduled for March 5. On March 1, Roscosmos cleared the satellites to be rolled out to the launch pad. On March 2, the Soyuz launcher went vertical on the launchpad. But at this moment, a day or two before the launch, Roscosmos demanded the following:
Roscosmos demands guarantees OneWeb satellites not to be used for military purposes: https://t.co/jyFt4WSbTa
❗️ Because of Britain’s hostile stance against Russia, another condition for the March 5 launch is that the British government withdraws from OneWeb. https://t.co/SZdEASO5ii
— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) March 2, 2022
In addition to Bharati and Eutelsat, OneWeb is also owned by the UK government, Softweb (the Japanese multinational holding company), Hanwa (a South Korean aerospace and defence company) and Hughes Network System (an American high-speed internet provider).
Unlike SpaceX’s Starlink, OneWeb does not connect directly to customers. Instead, it connects to clusters, businesses and governments. In fact, OneWeb has been designed to be used for defence customers within the government. This makes it difficult to agree to Russia’s demands.
On the other hand, OneWeb fears loss of capital over the uncertainty over its 34-36 satellites still on board the Soyuz rocket in Kazakhstan. Considering the good chance the mission will be called off, thanks to Rogozin’s “poison-pill conditions”, what will happen to the payload? OneWeb had already launched 428 satellites before the scheduled Soyuz launch, and planned to complete its constellation of 628 satellites this year.
(Update, 9:06 pm, March 3, 2022: On Thursday, OneWeb announced that it was suspending all launches of its satellites on the Soyuz launcher.)
There was a lively discussion on Reddit late last week on the impact of Russia’s response to the sanctions on India’s space programme. In fact, it is already expected to hamper India’s human spaceflight mission, Gaganyaan, due to the subsystem or parts to be imported from Russia.
The invasion is also likely to affect the tests of the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO’s) semi-cryogenic engine (SCE-200), which were to be conducted in Ukraine. There have already been media reports that these facilities could have been damaged in the conflict.
The SCE-200 is an important component of ISRO’s project to up-rate its medium-lift launch vehicle GSLV Mk III. Using a combination of these engines is expected to enable the rocket to lift up to 7.5 tonnes to geostationary transfer orbit, from its current ability to lift 4 tonnes. The engine uses liquid oxygen as the oxidiser and RP-1 kerosene as the fuel.
Considering the legacy and existing scope of Russia’s space programme, the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not unlikely to affect more missions, both short-term and long-term.
This article was originally published on the author’s newsletter and has been republished here with permission.
Pradeep Mohandas is a technical writer based in Pune. He is a space enthusiast.