How war in Ukraine is already impacting space international cooperation

in StemSocial6 months ago (edited)

In my previous entry, I was speaking about how the ISS needs the cooperation of all the involved parties to continue operating. As we were talking about, the space station relies mostly in the Russian modules and the Russian Progress cargo spacecraft to lift the ISS and ensure it does not fall back to Earth in matter of months. But the idea of the station splitting up in two is not probable, because the Russian Orbital Segment relies on the US Orbital segment for power supply and control of the orientation.

In the moment of writing those lines, war had not broken out yet. After that happened, amid the whole train of sanctions that many nations are imposing on Russia, US President Joe Biden directly targeted the space program: "We estimate that we'll cut off more than half of Russia's high-tech imports. That will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military. It'll degrade their aerospace industry, including their space program,"

Roscosmos director (Russian Space Agency) has been proved to be quite vocal in twitter in the past, and has used the platform for the informational war. And we have been able to read a direct threat to the ISS indicating that Russia is safe from an uncontrolled reentry of the ISS from orbit.

In the last weeks, we have been reading the plans to deorbit the ISS in 2030, the objective is to force a controlled reentry into Point Nemo, the most isolated point in the Pacific Ocean. Because we need to set this clear: this 420 tons spacecraft, of the size of a football field, would not burn completely in the atmosphere and will hit the ground. Rogozin new statement is clear: Russia is safe from the reentry path, but neither Europe or the US are, and also other powers like India or China would not be happy with the risk of the spacecraft falling over their territory.

Which are the alternatives? This February of 2022, a Cygnus cargo spacecraft has arrived to the ISS. This is a resupply mission, manufactured by the American company Orbital Sciences. And coincidentally, this spacecraft that has arrived is the first of its type ready to provide re-boost capabilities for the ISS.

As a less clear alternative, Elon Musk has tweeted about the possibility of SpaceX coming to the rescue. But no more information is available about the specifics. Probably their plan passes through trying to use some derivative of the Dragon spacecraft.


Soyuz Booster Rocket. Source: Public Domain

A very big (geopolitical and technical) deal: transportation systems

We were talking that the Cygnus resupply spacecraft could be a solution, right? Maybe it is not that easy. It is launched using the Northrop Grumman Antares rocket, which first stage is manufactured in Ukraine by Yuzhnoye State Design Office and Yuzhmash Machine Building, using RD-181 rocket engines manufactured by Russia’s NPO Energomash. Some American launchers have been heavy relying on the RD-180 and RD-181 engines, and partially the need to cut its dependency is behind the Rocket engine development race we are seeing in the present.

Truth is, space transportation (going to space, e.g. Rockets) is relying heavily in the Russian industry. Soyuz rockets have over thousand successful launches with a very effective delivery to orbit. They have been typically launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, but in 2003 the European Space Agency started a cooperation with Roscosmos to launch from the European Spaceport in French Guiana. This was ensuring a new source of income to the Russian space industry, that could benefit from the attractive position of this launching place, only 5 degrees over the equator.

This Saturda, @lemouth was putting into the spotlight a link with some news indicating how, as a result of the European sanctions imposed to Russia, Roscosmos was suspending this cooperation. Using twitter again, Rogozin claimed: "In response to EU sanctions against our enterprises, Roscosmos is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from the Kourou cosmodrome and withdrawing its technical personnel, including the consolidated launch crew, from French Guiana,"


Source: Twitter

Thierry Breton, European Commissioner in charge of the Space Programme, quickly came with an statement indicating the European capabilities to confront this situation. One of the main users of the Soyuz launchers from Kourou was the Galileo geolocation program (that we could call the European version of the GPS), and everything was ready for a new launch of two satellites in mid-2022. A new launcher will be most surely required. We cannot forget that when the Crimea crisis exploded, it already impacted some strategic launches. Radar imaging satellite PAZ was going to be launched using the Dnpr Rocket and in the end was launched by SpaceX after years of delay.

Other satellites of the European Earth Observation Programme Copernicus were launched in the past from Russia using the Rockot-M launcher (an intercontinental ballistic missile reconverted into launcher), but their baseline design allows them to use the European Vega launcher. However, Europe is in a complicated situation, because it loses a middle size launcher in between the Vega and the Ariane launcher and in a point in which their launcher families are in a transition, waiting for the maiden flight of Ariane-6 and Vega-C. The last launches of the previous members of the family are already scheduled. And they first flights of the new launchers are not likely going to be ready to fly in 2022.

Additionally, Russia was in conversations with NASA to be able to send Russian cosmonauts in the SpaceX Crew Dragons to the ISS. There is not new information regarding this topic, but maybe it will become difficult.

In a complicated situation is the UK based company OneWeb. In order to deploy their communications constellation, they are launching their satellites with the Soyuz family both from Kourou and Kazakhstan. The last of the badge of satellites arrived to Kazakhstan in February 2022 and situation is unclear right now.


Source: Twitter

How is the situation for other scientific missions?

In the beginning of last week, the cooperation in between Roscosmos and ESA for the Exomars 2022 mission looked still ongoing. Crews will have to travel to Kazakhstan in the short term for the integration of the spacecraft in the launchers. This mission aims to launch a European rover, that will descend in a Russian landing platform. Any problem would involve missing the launch window and having to postpone the launch for 26 months, probably situation is in a hot state and we will hear more in the incoming weeks. Euclid space telescope will probably suffer delays, it was going to be launched with a Russian launcher so next days would probably bring some updates.

The mission that has been openly cancelled ins the cooperation in between US and Roscosmos to launch Venera-D, a Venus exploration mission that continues the Venera soviet missions that opened the interplanetary exploration era. However, it looks like there has been little progress in the last years towards the success of the mission.

Last remarks

Situation is unclear right now. We will have to wait to see how the situation evolves. One thing is clear, the space industry is quite interconnected and Russia remains an important actor, mostly in Space transportation. It was not surprising how this month we saw some tentative projects to try to develop a European system to launch their own astronauts to orbit and we will continue observing the trend to invest in rocket launcher start-ups.

A very last surprising point. All this conversations, all this declarations, are happening in Twitter, which looks like it has become the most extended way to communicate (or to participate in the public debate). What do you think about a centralized social network becoming the pre-defined communications technology, at least in the so-called Western countries?


This is very sad story. Not only space a lot of scientific fields will be affected because of the war. !PIZZA

Exactly! And it is really sad, because research is working in everyone's favour and there are plenty of extremely competent Russian scientists that also will suffer their projects going to a standby situation.

I was reading yesterday a statement in Stemsocial on a personal decision to stop collaborating with Russian institutions. We are seeing how many institutions are taking that path as a way to social pressure the country.

I think you can remove will be and write are instead. This will definitely slow down research, but as I have said in my comment and in my post, doing nothing is not acceptable. We need to raise our voice and do as much as we can.

Exactly @beyondhorizonmm, as @lemouth is saying projects are already stopping. Some of these future missions that I was speaking about in the post will go through big changes, and we will see it but in general, lots of smaller projects are already stopping even though they do not have the huge visibility of a space mission.

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Thanks for this excellent summary of the situation. I was completely unaware of all the possibilities for the ISS. It is clear than delays have to be expected with any plan B, but it is relieving to read that plans B do exist.

Science is however acting together at the present time, and not only its space branch. Many discussions are on-going and announcements are made one after the other.

As scientists we represent our institutions and thus the country in which we are based. Taking this into account, it becomes clear why official cooperation with Russian institutes should stop for now. However, Russian scientists are our friends and amongst the first ones to oppose themselves to the regime (with artists, athletes and many visible personalities). For this reason, it is important to maintain private links.

This is what I decided to follow as a guide. The "business as usual" model is not sustainable in current conditions.

They are Plan Bs that were never thought to be implemented in a rush. This can precipitate a controlled decommissioning even though the US had intentions on start their commercial space station programme with new modules and missions. Their biggest concern would probably be that the companies preparing projects for a commercial space station are not yet ready to provide the service, so I would not be surprised if they push to make it survive at any cost.

Completely agree with which should be our positions. I personally have worked with Russian people that understands this situation, but are also scared if this could create an environment of personal mistrust and a general phobia to the individual Russian, that we cannot mistake for the institutions.

That is true. The "rushy" part is definitely a problem as it is always easier when we can plan things in advance.

On a different but related topic, I was also wondering about the fate of the Russian cosmonauts inside the station. At some point, they need to be fed (basic needs always come back quickly), and Russia will have to bring them back to Earth. How would this work in such a context? Would they be sacrificed (hopefully not!). Do you have some insights?


That may be easier than expected. There is always enough capacity for evacuating everyone in the ISS. During lots of years, specially after the Shuttle program was cancelled this service was only provided by the Soyuz capsules. If I am not wrong, now there would be a Soyuz (with 3 seats) and a Crew Dragon (with 4 seats) parked in the ISS. And there are currently 2 Russians, 1 German and 4 US citizens. Current plan was that one of the Americans is returning on a Russian capsule with the 2 Russians. Apparently the plan is still that Mark Vande Hei will return in the Soyuz on April as originally planned.

Thanks for these pieces of information. I didn't know. So yeah, in principle this won't be a problem at all.

Of course, I should have known capsules were up there, ready to move down...

Have a nice evening!

Well.. news on the ISS front are that it looks like the plan is to continue operations as normal and for the US astronaut to return with in the Russian spacecraft. However -and during the same press conference- other people interprets opennes to increase the flexibility of the ISS operations if it were required. I want to understand that there is a will to keep peaceful cooperation in space with Russia as a diplomatic point of contact (as it happened even during the Cold War)

That would indeed be really great to use the ISS as a landmark for peace... Let's see what will happen (there is nothing much we can do with this respect).

It would be scary to be there knowing you cannot come back fast if something happens or you have a medical emergency! But it happens everyday to people in boats amd submarines for example.

Thanks to you for the chat! No problem at all. Nice evening!

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It is a very sad consequence of an even sadder situation.. Such a pity that this kind of thing has to be happening.


Exactlybas you said it, this is just a consecuence of something even worse. It is not idealist saying that peace and commerce is more beneficial for all than war.


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