ESA Thinks ExoMars Launch This Year “Very Unlikely,” But NASA Says ISS Still OK

ESA Thinks ExoMars Launch This Year “Very Unlikely,” But NASA Says ISS Still OK

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rattle space cooperation. The European Space Agency said today the September launch of its Mars rover as part of the Russian-European ExoMars 2022 mission is “very unlikely.” But a top NASA official reinforced earlier U.S. statements that operations of the International Space Station, a partnership among the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan, remain unaffected. Meanwhile the head of Russia’s space agency changed his Twitter profile photo to show himself in uniform and made more incendiary remarks.

ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher tweeted that “we deplore the tragic events” in Ukraine and the agency is making “difficult decisions” about its cooperative activities with Russia. That includes ExoMars 2022 and the use of Russia’s Soyuz rocket.

ESA has 22 member states, many of which also are members of the European Union and/or NATO. ESA says it is implementing sanctions imposed against Russia by its members and aligning its decisions with them in coordination with industrial and international partners “in particular with NASA on the International Space Station.”

ESA and European countries and companies have expanded their cooperation with Russia since the end of the Cold War. The marquee ESA-Russia program right now is ExoMars 2022, scheduled for launch to Mars in September. Russia built the Kazachok landing platform while ESA is providing the Rosalind Franklin rover.

Illustration of ESA’s Rosalind Frankin rover (foreground) after it has rolled off Russia’s Kazachok landing platform (center left). Credit: ESA

The 2018 launch was delayed to 2020 and then to September 2022. As recently as last week, ESA was still planning to send its support team to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to begin integrating the rover, which is currently in Turin, Italy, with the rest of the spacecraft and Proton rocket in preparation for launch.

But events are unfolding quickly. Today ESA said launch in 2022 is “very unlikely.”

Regarding the ExoMars programme continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely. ESA’s Director General will analyse all the options and prepare a formal decision on the way forward by ESA Member States.

ESA did not go as far as saying it would not launch, and Russia could launch the landing platform without the rover although it would sharply diminish the scientific return. Soviet/Russian attempts to send spacecraft to Mars have been plagued with problems since the 1960s and ESA’s first attempt to put a lander on Mars failed so both have been looking forward to this mission as an opportunity to rejuvenate their Mars exploration efforts. ESA already has two spacecraft orbiting Mars, including the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter launched on a Russian rocket in 2016.

Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, ESA and NASA’s counterpart in Russia, slammed ESA’s decision via Twitter. Known for his provocative tweets whenever displeased, he performed to standard today blasting ESA basically for cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Google translates that as “The European Space Agency, in spite of the Russian grandmother, decided to freeze off her ears.” Katya Pavlushchenko, a Russian space enthusiast, explained the idiom in English more understandably.

Rogozin was Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister for the defense and space sectors in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and consequently has been personally sanctioned by Europe and the United States since then.

Today, he changed his Twitter profile image to show himself in uniform, tweeting in English instead of his usual Russian that it is the “uniform of the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation.”

He went on another Twitter tirade, this time about U.S. sanctions and the United Launch Alliance’s use of Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas V rocket.

ULA’s Atlas V has a 100 percent success record, but after Russia annexed Crimea, Congress directed ULA to stop using Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites after a bitter debate in the Senate brokered and resolved by Bill Nelson, then a Senator from Florida and now NASA Administrator.

ULA now is building a completely new rocket, Vulcan, with U.S. engines developed by Blue Origin.

ULA told that it has all the RD-180 engines it needs before Vulcan begins flights. They already are here in the United States at ULA’s facility in Decatur, AL and the company says it can fly them even without technical support from Russia.

As we manage the transition to the Vulcan launch system, all necessary RD-180 engines to execute the Atlas V flyout are safely stored in our factory in Decatur, Alabama. We have agreements for technical support and spares, but if that support is not available, we will still be able to safely and successfully fly out our Atlas program. — ULA spokesperson

Rogozin challenged that perspective in a series of tweets today. He pointed out that Atlas V will be used to launch Boeing’s Starliner crew spacecraft to the ISS. Starliner has suffered a series of setbacks. A repeat of an uncrewed test flight, OFT-2, is now expected in the next few months with the first crewed flight by the end of this year. He tried to raise the fear that launching Atlas V with people onboard without support from Russia’s technical experts is risky.

“This ship will be launched into space on an Atlas 5 rocket with our RD-180 propulsion engine in the first stage. But already without the supervision of our specialists. Well let’s pray for our American friends.” [per Google Translate]

ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno tweeted reassurances.

The next Atlas V launch is scheduled for tomorrow to place NOAA’s GOES-T weather satellite into geostationary orbit.

Russia and Europe also formed a partnership on launch vehicles. ESA develops rockets that are launched by the French company Arianespace. Arianespace has the Ariane and Vega rockets for large and small payloads respectively, but medium-class launches are on Russia’s Soyuz rocket from ESA’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, or Russia’s launch sites in Baikonur, Kazakhstan and Vostochny, Russia.

On Saturday, Russia announced that in response to Europe’s sanctions it was suspending Soyuz-ST launches from Kourou and withdrawing its support team. The next Soyuz launch from Kourou was set for April of two European Union Galileo navigation satellites. The EU Commissioner for Space said Russia’s decision would not affect the “continuity and quality” of Galileo services or those of EU’s other space system, Copernicus, for earth remote sensing including for security purposes.

ESA itself also uses Soyuz. Its Euclid astrophysics satellite, which includes NASA participation, was scheduled for launch from Kourou later this year. Today ESA said that in light of Russia’s decision to suspend Soyuz launches from Kourou, it is looking at alternatives.

Regarding the Soyuz launch campaign from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, we take note of the Roscosmos decision to withdraw its workforce from Kourou. We will consequently assess for each European institutional payload under our responsibility the appropriate launch service based notably on launch systems currently in operation and the upcoming Vega-C and Ariane 6 launchers.

One company that regularly launches on Soyuz through the Arianespace partnership is OneWeb, owned by the U.K. government, India’s Bharti Global, and Softbank. It is building a constellation of 648 communications satellites, with the next launch of 36 satellites on a Soyuz from Baikonur. OneWeb has not responded to a request for comment on its plans, but its next launch appears on track for March 4.

ESA also is part of the ISS partnership and that still appears to be unaffected.

NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders speaking at the Axiom-1 press conference, February 28, 2022. Screengrab.

During a press conference today on the upcoming private astronaut mission to ISS, Axiom-1, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders reiterated that nothing has changed in terms of ISS operations because of the invasion of Ukraine.

We are not getting any indications at a working level that our counterparts [in Russia] are not committed to ongoing operation of the International Space Station. We as a team are operating just like we were operating three weeks ago. The [flight] controllers are still talking together.  Our teams are still talking together. We’re still doing training together.”

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