Europe’s ExoMars Rover Will Likely Miss This Year’s Launch Window Because of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

As countries around the world respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with sanctions aimed at crippling Moscow and Vladimir Putin, the global cooperation in space exploration that has been forged over the past 30-plus years will certainly be impacted.

One example: the European Space Agency said the launch of the ExoMars 2022 mission, scheduled for September of this year, is “very unlikely,” due to sanctions on Russia. ExoMars is supposed to launch on a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Russia is also supposed to supply the landing and science platform for the Rosalind Franklin rover, and if the conflict continues, the oft-delayed mission will likely have to wait for the next launch window to Mars in 2024.

In a statement issued by ESA, officials said, “We deplore the human casualties and tragic consequences of the war in Ukraine. We are giving absolute priority to taking proper decisions, not only for the sake of our workforce involved in the programmes, but in full respect of our European values, which have always fundamentally shaped our approach to international cooperation.”

“We are fully implementing sanctions imposed on Russia by our Member States,” the statement continued. “We are assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programmes conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos and align our decisions to the decisions of our Member States in close coordination with industrial and international partners (in particular with NASA on the International Space Station).”

Meanwhile, the head of the Russian agency appears to be burning every bridge that’s been built with various space entities around the world. In a series of bizarre rants on Twitter over the past several days, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, suggested future Atlas 5 rockets launched by ULA (United Launch Alliance) will fail (including today’s schedule GOES-T launch) because they won’t have technical support for the Russian components on the rockets. Rogozin even said that the sanctions could result in the International Space Station crashing into the U.S., Europe, India, or China. He erroneously said the ISS doesn’t fly over Russia, “so all the risks are yours.”

First Soyuz lifts off from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on 21 October 2011. Credits:Thilo Kranz/DLR

Officially, Roscosmos announced it was suspending cooperation with Europe on Soyuz launches from the European spaceport in French Guiana (CSG), and they have removed Russian personnel from the site. That will likely delay several upcoming launches scheduled to launch on a Soyuz rocket from CSG, including two pairs of Galileo navigational satellites, Euclid, a visible to near-infrared space telescope scheduled to launch in early 2023, the EarthCARE (Earth Clouds, Aerosols and Radiation Explorer) satellite, a cooperative effort between ESA and Japan’s space agency JAXA to improve understanding of the cloud  and aerosol processes that affect the Earth’s climate. Other governmental satellites are in the queue as well.

The indication of threats to the ISS are most concerning since humans are on board. During a press briefing on February 28, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said ISS operations have not been affected by the sanctions so far.

International Space Station
The International Space Station stretches out in an image captured by astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly-around in November 2021. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

“We are not getting any indications, at a working level, that our counterparts are not committed to ongoing operation of the International Space Station,” she said. “We’re operating just like we were operating three weeks ago. Our teams are still talking together, we’re still doing training together, we’re still working together.”

Lueders added that, “It would be a sad day for international operations that we can’t continue to peacefully operate in space,” and that it would be very difficult to operate the ISS without the international cooperation that the project was founded on.

“I actually feel like this is a good message for us – that we are operating peacefully in space now and moving forward,” she said, but added, “That said, we always look for how do we get more operational flexibility.”

In an signal of that, NASA said they are discussing cargo and crew transportation options with Northrop Grumman and SpaceX, and in an announcement late yesterday, NASA announced they have awarded SpaceX additional crew flights to the space station.

Lead image caption: Artist’s impression of ESA’s ExoMars rover (foreground) and Russia’s science platform (background) on Mars.