Science·Analysis

Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatens the long-standing global co-operation in space, experts say

From saying the space station will drop out of the sky over the U.S. to pulling out of multiple space partnerships, Russia's actions during the invasion of Ukraine is threatening decades of peaceful international relations.

‘Let them fly ... on their broomsticks,’ Russian space agency chief says of U.S.

The International Space Station is seen on Oct. 4, 2018. Experts are wondering what Russia's invasion of Ukraine means for the future of space co-operation. (NASA/Roscosmos/Reuters)

The International Space Station has long been a symbol of peace and co-operation among 15 nations. In its 21 years of operation, it has managed to survive many geopolitical situations, but now experts are wondering what Russia's invasion of Ukraine means for the future of its space partnerships.

Russia's space program has a long, storied history. They (as the Soviet Union) launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957; they launched the first human into space, Yuri Gagarin in 1961; they performed the first spacewalk and built the first space station. Their Soyuz rockets that take their cosmonauts to the International Space Station (ISS) are workhorses designed from the end of the Cold War era.

They are also a major partner in the ISS. But experts say that long-respected history is being threatened by Russia's actions over the war in Ukraine. 

As the war enters its third week, Russian forces continue to shell several major cities and hamper efforts to evacuate civilians. Western officials said Russian forces have intensified the bombardment of cities such as Mariupol, where an airstrike on a maternity hospital killed three people Wednesday. The number of refugees fleeing the country topped 2.3 million. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and head of Roscosmos Dmitry Rogozin, right, in Moscow, on April 12, 2018. On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, Rogozin tweeted that without Russia's co-operation with NASA, the space station would come down over the U.S., Europe, India or China. (Maxim Shipenkov/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian space agency head makes threats

Russian space agency (Roscosmos) Director General Dmitry Rogozin has been making threats on Twitter about the space station since the day Russia invaded Ukraine. On Feb. 24, Rogozin tweeted that without Russia's co-operation with NASA, the space station would come down over the U.S., Europe, India or China.

"If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or ... Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton structure to India and China," he tweeted.

"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."

(Astronomer and satellite expert Jonathan McDowell pointed out that Rogozin was incorrect, noting that the ISS did pass across 2.8 per cent of Russia.)

In any case, experts say it's an empty threat.

"Can the International Space Station be suddenly dropped over Europe? No. Is that going to happen? Again, no," said Jessica West, a senior researcher at Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace research institute at the University of Waterloo. 

But, West said, it represents something bigger.

"Is this a huge blow to diplomacy? Yes. Space co-operation? Yes. Science? Yes."

Rogozin has even gone as far as to get into a Twitter brawl with veteran NASA astronaut Scott Kelly — at one point calling him a "moron" for his criticisms of Rogozin's tweets and Russia's invasion. Kelly spent almost a year on the space station from March 2015 to March 2016 with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko studying the long-term effects of living in space. 

The weeks of Rogozin's frenetic and wild tweets is a bad look, experts say.

'It is hurting Russia'

The ISS is a collection of 16 separate modules from the U.S., Russia and Japan, and includes the 16-metre Canadarm that assembled them all. Its orbit needs to be periodically adjusted via thrusters which can be done a few ways, including by using a Russian module. It was this to which Rogozin was hinting at.

This illustration shows the various contributions to the International Space Station by different countries. Note that Russia has four. (NASA)

Since the start of the Russian invasion, Roscosmos has also made other decisions that have shocked the international space community.

The U.K. satellite company OneWeb was forced to cancel its launch of 36 satellites after Rogozin demanded the U.K. government divest itself from its share in the company and guarantee that none of the satellites would be used for military purposes, since they were launching atop a Russian Soyuz rocket. And OneWeb isn't getting its satellites or their money back.

Russia has also pulled out of launch operations in Kourou, French Guiana, as well as announcing they would no longer sell RD-181 engines to Northrop Grumman, a U.S. company that uses the them on its Antares rockets

"In a situation like this we can't supply the United States with our world's best rocket engines. Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks," Rogozin said on Russian state television.

The Soyuz rocket is transported by train to the launch pad on March 12, 2019 in Kazakhstan. U.K. satellite company OneWeb was forced to cancel its launch of 36 satellites, which were to be launched atop a Russian Soyuz rocket. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

And finally, the European Space Agency said that it's unlikely its ExoMars 2022 mission (which was done jointly with Roscosmos) will launch, due to sanctions.

The question is, who is going to suffer with all these partnerships crumbling?

"It is hurting Russia," said Marcia Smith, editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com. "I mean, they're going to be losing a lot of revenue. It's hard to imagine a lot of these customers would ever go back to them, even if the war ended tomorrow, because they've lost the trust of their customers and their partners."

Instead of focusing on its commercial space program, Russia is now looking to focus more on its military space operations. 

"One of Rogozin's tweets was that they were going to redirect all their money into military satellites, but that's not all of a space program," Smith said. "That's not what they've been aspiring to."

Victoria Samson, a director for the Secure World Foundation, who specializes in military space and security issues, said Russia has big issues when it comes to their space program in general.

"Their civil space program is in tatters," she said. "It has had issues with corruption and quality control, to the point where last year, not only did Putin slash the funding, but they actually made it a law that Russians can't talk to outsiders about the space program. That's not a sign that it's going well."

A questionable future

In November 2021, Roscosmos conducted an anti-satellite test, firing a missile from northern Russia and destroying its own Soviet-era COSMOS satellite at an altitude of around 480 kilometres.

WATCH | Russia acccused of endangering astronauts with space missile test:

Russia accused of endangering astronauts with space missile test

1 year ago
Duration 1:54
Russia is being accused of putting astronauts on the International Space Station in danger by conducting a missile test and blowing up its own satellite, which created enough debris to force astronauts to hide in safety pods.

The result was a massive debris field with 1,500 pieces big enough to be tracked. The U.S. Space Command said that it would likely create hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces.

"I think that was shocking for so many in the space community, because it put astronauts at risk, it put a few vulnerable human lives that are in Earth orbit directly at risk and that included two Russian astronauts," West said.

"And I think it's that disregard for human life for other states and space that is part of an unravelling of the partnership."

That disregard is again under scrutiny in the case of NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is scheduled to return to Earth on a Russian ship on March 30 with two Russian cosmonauts. Last week, state-run RIA Novosti television ran what they said was a "comic" piece showing the two cosmonauts leaving Vande Hei behind.

And it's likely there will be no co-operation with Russia in the Artemis missions back to the moon, Samson said. However, there have been rumblings that Russia is partnerning with China, who already has a relatively strong space program of their own. 

Once the ISS is taken out of commission, which is likely in 2030, Russia will be without a space station, whereas the U.S. has plans for Lunar Gateway, which will be near the moon as well as perhaps another, much smaller commercial space station in low-Earth orbit.

Russia has no such plans and is likely to seek some sort of agreement with China, Samson said. 

WATCH | Astronauts bond over orbiting space junk:

Astronauts bond as orbiting space junk threatens International Space Station

1 year ago
Duration 1:08
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei thanked mission control for helping those aboard the International Space Station handle orbiting debris fields of space junk, calling it a great way for the crew to come together. Four of the seven crew members arrived at the orbiting outpost Thursday night.

But after decades of international co-operation and a remarkable history in space, can Russia come back from what appears to be a deteriorating space program?

"I don't see us coming back from this mostly because it's not just one incident," West said. 

"I think the ripple effect of what's happening in Ukraine is going to be more than just a ripple effect, I think we're seeing a shattering in some ways of the way we have been coexisting, and it's going to be deep and impossibly long."

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