The academy’s position on the future of space cooperation with Russia and Ukraine

Cooperation with Russia has existed for a very long time in space matters. It began in 1966 at the height of the Cold War, and France was the instigator, with a desired policy of sharing space almost equally with the United States and, at the time, the USSR. This was reflected in 1970 by the sending of laser reflectors manufactured in Cannes to the Moon in the Lunokhod missions, by the launch of the Signe III satellite by a Soviet rocket from Kapoustin Yar and by the launch of our first French astronaut Jean-Loup Chrétien in 1982, and subsequently of many other astronauts. This cooperation became that of Europe and Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall. European astronauts were launched by Soyuz, and there have been many other agreements since. In satellites, Thales Alenia Space cooperated with Krasnoyarsk-based NPO PM in providing some telecom payloads for the Express satellites. DASA in Germany formed an alliance for launches of Rockot, a former ballistic missile converted into a launcher, fired from the Plessetsk base (a cooperation terminated only when the missile stock had been exhausted). Aerospatiale joined forces with Roscosmos, Samara Space Center and Arianespace to create Starsem and launch with Soyuz at a time when the Americans were creating joint ventures with Lockheed and Boeing to launch Proton and Zenit.

So we can see that relations were numerous and, it must be said, fruitful. During the cold war at first, and then a more relaxed context, relations have been consistently good. Russia has always put forward valuable engineers in the field of Space with whom it was pleasant to work.

1. Launchers

Cooperation is based mainly around the Soyuz launcher, via the companies Starsem and Arianespace. The Russians have unilaterally decided to stop launching from the Guiana Space Centre. This raises the question of how to place into orbit the satellites that are in the order book for Soyuz launches from Guiana. For the military CSO optical reconnaissance satellites that come under this heading, the decision has already been taken to switch them to Ariane 62. This will undoubtedly cause a slight delay since qualification of this launcher has not yet been obtained, but the additional cost is not significant, around 10%. This example illustrates once again that strategic autonomy in terms of launchers is absolutely essential. Europe must not rely on external means to launch its military or strategic satellites. All the major space powers have policies of strategic autonomy. Europe must do the same, thereby also preserving its industrial base.

For those Galileo satellites remaining to be launched, the same question arises of finding a substitute for Soyuz: whether to wait for Ariane 6 or to find another launcher for these strategic satellites.

Via Arianespace, cluster launches of the OneWeb satellites are carried out by Soyuz rockets fired from Baikonur. A launch was planned for 4 March, after the start of Russian operations in Ukraine, but the Russians decided not to go ahead while the UK remains a shareholder in the OneWeb constellation. The other shareholders are the Bharti industrial group (India) and Eutelsat. They will probably have to fall back on another launcher. They could choose the Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) given the nationality of the first shareholder, but the launch rate of this launcher would have to be accelerated to put the remaining satellites in place within a reasonable timeframe. The latest news is that SpaceX launches are being considered. OneWeb is thus putting itself in the hands of Elon Musk, who is building a competing Starlink constellation. Perhaps they should have waited for Ariane 62, which is perfectly suited to this type of launch and affordable…

It is worth noting that for the Russians, abandoning Soyuz to launch OneWeb represents a significant loss of revenue. Last year, out of 22 Soyuz launches, 8 were dedicated to OneWeb. It is also a loss for Arianespace, which at the moment of the Ariane 5-Ariane 6 switch is in a fragile financial balance.

There is also a significant risk for the Vega launcher, whose terminal stage propulsion comes from the Yuznoye company in Dnipro, Ukraine. Ukrainian deliveries will likely no longer be possible. It is of course possible to manufacture this type of stage in Europe. ESA had presented a project for a European stage, called Berta, but it was abandoned in favour of Italian development of a new oxygen-methane engine. This kind of development is usually long and there is a risk that an all-European terminal stage will not be available soon, causing Vega launches to be stopped for several years. There is another supply problem with Vega. On one of the stages, the Zefiro, the carbon inserts in the nozzle necks come from Ukraine. They would have to be produced in Europe. ArianeGroup is capable of making them. These examples show, once again, the risks taken by not respecting the rule of complete European autonomy for access to Space.

With regard to small launcher initiatives, we should mention the Rocket Factory Ausburg (RFA), which is due to use a Ukrainian-designed engine. Even if the intention is to produce this engine in Germany, it can be assumed that in the current development phase, the difficulty of accessing Ukrainian expertise could hold back development of this engine and consequently significantly delay the entire project.

2. International Space Station (ISS)

This is essentially a cooperation between Russians and Americans. The Europeans and Japanese are only marginally involved. At present, since the European ATV cargo ship was halted, only Russian Progress vehicles are used to raise the altitude of the station’s orbit, which is rapidly deteriorating due to residual atmospheric friction at 400 km. In 2018, an orbit-raising test carried out by Northrop-Grumann’s Cygnus cargo ship showed the feasibility of this manoeuvre, even if it is more complex. Given Cygnus’ docking port, the station must be rotated 90° before it can be pushed. It is also possible that the SpaceX US cargo ship Dragon could perform this. Without this correction by Progress or alternative solutions, the station would re-enter the atmosphere in about a year and there is no way of predicting where it might hit the ground. The station has a mass of more than 400 tonnes and it is almost certain that the elements would not all burn up on re-entry. Some would hit the Earth. It is worth noting, however, that the impact zone could only be between the two extreme latitudes of the station: + and – 51°6. Russia is therefore unlikely to be hit.

Furthermore, it should be noted that we cannot bring this station down in one piece. We would have to separate it into pieces, with re-entry of each piece being directed to the South Pacific where there are no inhabitants. This is no mean feat!

What are the options for the ISS?

  • The first is to maintain the status quo: The agreement between the participating countries runs until 2024. NASA seems ready to continue operating the station in good agreement with its Russian counterparts. Whatever the differences between Russia and the United States in the past, there have never been any profound differences in the operation of the station. The Americans and Russians can continue to run the station, perhaps with minimal operations and a reduced staff, until the situation improves. The Europeans would continue to participate. – In the prevailing tense circumstances, it is of no minor significance that this space station, known to all, should continue to act as a symbol of entente and peace, a testimony, at a time when space is potentially a place of potential military confrontation.
  • The second involves the unilateral termination of Russia’s participation. NASA is undoubtedly studying this scenario. It must be looking for ways to maintain the station’s orbit using the Dragon and Cygnus cargo ships, which seems possible. It may be more difficult to do without Russian resources for one important function: desaturation of the gyroscopes that provide attitude control. The gyroscopes are American, but in order to prevent them from reaching too high a rotation speed, it is necessary from time to time to create torque with motors to lower their speed, which is called desaturation. This is carried out by Russian engines and propellants. Can we use American cargo ships to create these torques? We don’t have an answer at the moment. It is unlikely that the Europeans will be able to provide significant help in the short term for either orbit maintenance and attitude control. – ATV cargo production cannot be restarted quickly, and even then, the ATV relied on Russian supplies that are now unavailable.

It should be noted that the end of Russian participation in the ISS, combined with the end of the OneWeb launches, would be a major blow to Soyuz production, since 14 out of 22 launches in 2021 were carried out for these two missions combined.

The decision to abandon the station would also put a stop to Russian manned spaceflight. Since Gagarin, cosmonauts have been an integral part of the pride of the Russian people. The disappearance of this elite corps, even temporarily, would undoubtedly be very badly received. Can Russia re-launch a Mir-type station? Does it have the financial means? It could also turn to cooperation with China by participating in the Chinese station. Are the Chinese ready for this? There is no clear answer.

3. Scientific missions

The most important scientific mission is Exomars, a mission to Mars for which Russia is providing the launch (in principle the last flight of Proton, to be succeeded by Angara) and the module for descent into the Martian atmosphere. Europe is providing the cruise vehicle and the Mars rover with its instruments. Current events are certainly compromising any launch this year. With launch slots to Mars occurring every two years, it is likely that this mission, if not cancelled, will be delayed by two to four years. The mission could be launched by Ariane 64 in two years, but it would probably take a little longer to develop a European descent module. A four-year delay seems most likely.

There is also a moon exploration programme called Luna, which includes orbiters and landers, in which ESA is involved. In particular, ESA is providing the optical navigation system (Pilot) used for the landing and the Prospect drill. Can these technologies be delivered?

4. Recommendations

After this description of the situation in Ukraine as it stands in mid-March 2022, a few elements of analysis lead to recommendations:

Concerning launchers, it is clear that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, European and American launch operators sought to take advantage of the very low manufacturing costs of Russian and Ukrainian launchers, combined with a widely demonstrated reliability. Moreover, some of these launchers, such as the Soyuz launcher for the Europeans, complemented very well the performance range of their existing launchers, Ariane 5 and Vega. This explains the decision to create the company Starsem to market Soyuz launches from Baikonur outside Russia and, in a second phase, to install a Soyuz launch pad at the Guiana Space Centre (CSG). This operation was the subject of an intergovernmental agreement between France and Russia in 2005, renewed in 2015 until 2025. This agreement was abruptly broken by the unilateral decision of Roscosmos on 26 February to stop Soyuz launches from the CSG and to repatriate the Russian personnel based in Sinnamary.

The lesson to be learned from this situation is clear: one of the foundations of the policy of all the space powers – US, China, India, Japan and Russia – is to preserve their autonomous access to space. Europe must do the same and cannot allow itself to be in a situation of dependence, as is the case for the Soyuz launches. Soyuz should therefore be phased out at CSG and replaced as soon as possible by the Ariane 62 version of the new Ariane 6 launcher.

Recommendation n°1

Europe must make a maximum effort to qualify the Ariane 6 launcher so as to have appropriate means of launching military satellites such as CSO, strategic satellites such as Galileo and commercial satellites such as constellations. This also means increasing the production rate of this launcher very significantly. This last point is a real challenge that must be carefully prepared if we want to succeed.

Recommendation n°2

A Europeanisation programme for Vega is necessary and actions taken by the European Space Agency in this direction must be accelerated.

Concerning the International Space Station, as stated in section 2 of this note, the station and its joint operation with Russia is a highly visible symbol that ad hoc cooperation without a strategic or security dimension can continue amidst the worst phases of international tension. Those who were familiar with the heated debates in Europe on the appropriateness of participating in this programme will remember that, in the end, the political dimension of this cooperation with Russia, which was endeavouring to build itself up again after the dissolution of the USSR, won the day.

It should be noted that for the time being, day-to-day operation of the ISS is continuing without any significant hitch. The thunderous statements by Roscosmos boss Dmitri Rogozin, threatening to stop the regular orbit-raising operations carried out until now by the Russian Progress vehicle and to let the ISS fall back into the atmosphere uncontrollably, will only accelerate NASA’s implementation of the raising procedure using the Northrop-Grumman Cygnus cargo ship. However, these statements have a very negative impact on the reliability of the partnership with Russia for the future of the ISS. Unless there is a change in Roscosmos’ behaviour in the coming months, it is likely that the hypothesis of an extension of the operation of the International Space Station without Russia until 2030 will be confirmed, with significant financial consequences – yet to be quantified – for the other partners: the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Recommendation n°3

Russia would have much to lose in a scenario in which it abandoned its participation in the ISS and we can only recommend that Europe, together with its American, Canadian and Japanese partners, do everything possible to avoid this.

As far as planetary exploration missions are concerned, ESA’s decision not to launch the ExoMars probe with the Russian Proton launcher, which was planned for this year, and to seek other solutions, both for the launch and for the Mars atmospheric re-entry vehicle, highlights a well-known rule, confirmed on a number of occasions: a scientific mission carried out in cooperation between several partner nations is subject at all times to the decision of one of the partners to withdraw, for whatever reasons, budgetary or otherwise. It should be remembered that ExoMars was planned in cooperation with Russia following NASA’s decision to withdraw from the project, initially envisaged between ESA and NASA! Let us hope that the ExoMars mission can be saved.

Recommendation n°4

Given the considerable investment of the European scientific community in the preparation of this mission, not to mention the high cost of the developments and tests already carried out in European industry, the ExoMars mission should be saved, even if it takes another four or even six years. It should be launched by Ariane 64. As far as the descent module is concerned, Europe will have to consider going it alone, unless the conflict ends quickly enough, and we make of this scientific mission an example of how to revive our cooperation with Russia afterwards.