Soyuz rockets remain key to the space industry. Russia just paralyzed them

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On Saturday, 48 hours after Moscow began the invasion of Ukraine and after learning of the first EU sanctions, Roscosmos – the equivalent of NASA in Russia – warned Europe of two decisions that affect it directly: the suspension of Soyuz launches from Kourou, its main spaceport, and the withdrawal of Russian personnel from French Guiana. They look like amazing ads. Soyuz, after all, is a name of the 20th century. The truth, however, is that it is still very present and the war casts shadows on its future.

Soyuz, a name with history. Soyuz takes us back to the last century, to the space race of the USSR. The first manned flight of the program, in fact, dates back to the mid-1960s. More than half a century later, however, its manned ships and rockets —the name extends to both— have known how to gradually adapt to play an important role in tasks as relevant as the operation of the International Space Station (ISS) or the launch of satellites and ships, a task to which different European agents resort . The trip to the ISS that actress Yulia Peresild and producer Klim Shipenko undertook in the autumn also acquired one of the Soyuz spacecraft.

What are they currently used for?. Throughout their history, Soyuz spacecraft have transported Russian personnel to Soviet Salyut and Mir stations. In recent decades, his service to the ISS stands out. Its role in bringing crews to and from the International Space Station has been key since the withdrawal of the space shuttle in 2011. Since 2020, however, the United States has an alternative: the ships of Elon Musk’s private company SpaceX, which makes about a year and a half ago he achieved a milestone by completing an operation with the Crew Dragon.

The Soyuz rocket is still operational. In fact just a few weeks ago, on February 10, a flight took off from French Guiana loaded with 34 OneWeb satellites. Its versatility and ability to adapt over the years have allowed him to stay as an option for launching probes such as the Mars Express and telecommunication or meteorological satellites. Also for ISS resupply. Companies using it for commercial launches include Starsem and Arianespace. The European Agency itself uses it regularly for its manned space missions. It happened in 2019, for example, with Cheops space telescope.

An active agenda in the short and medium term. Proof of the use of Soyuz rockets is that Arianespace had a launch scheduled for early April that was to put two navigation satellites into orbit for the EU’s Galileo constellation. To them should be added another pair that would have to be launched throughout the year. Spacenews pointsin addition, that the ESA had planned to use a Soyuz in 2023 for its scientific mission EarthCARE Earth, developed with its Japanese counterpart. The Russian ship was also to host the Euclid Infrared Space Telescope and the reconnaissance satellite CSO-3scheduled for early 2023.

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The war in Ukraine and the decision of the Moscow. “In response to EU sanctions against our companies, Roscosmos suspends cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from the Kourou Cosmodrome and withdraws its personnel, including the consolidated launch crew from French Guiana,” published on Saturday Dmitry Rogozin, director of Roscosmos. The agency has withdrawn 87 workers from Guiana who are in charge of supporting Soyuz launches for Roscosmos and the NPO firms Lavochki, Progress RCC and TsENKI.

Moscow’s decision leaves Russia’s participation in European launches up in the air, at least for now. The measure was announced shortly after the EU advanced the first measures to pressure Russia for the war in Ukraine – a package that has been completed hand in hand with the US and other countries with a new offensive— and must be understood in the context of the war in Ukraine and the tension with the West. Soyuz launches from French Guiana are one of the few space assets that Moscow can play. The others are the ISS and support for the US in its mission to Venus, topics that Rogozin has also touched in the last days.

And now that? At a minimum, Russia’s decision is likely to delay planned launches in the near term. For now, Thierry BretonEU commissioner for the branch, has already had to leave to publicly guarantee that the measure will not affect the continuity or quality of the Earth observation satellite program Copernicus or the Galilean system, which was going to receive the satellites planned for the next launches with Soyuz. “We will make all relevant decisions in response to this decision in due course,” guaranteed.

Russia’s dependency. Although the fact that the EU has had to send a message of calm gives an idea of ​​the role of the Soyuz, the truth is that the West’s dependence on Russia is less today than it was a decade ago. As SpaceNews notesthe scenario is different from that of 2014, when —in the framework of the annexation of Crimea— Russia responded to US sanctions by threatening to limit access to Soyuz spacecraft flying to the ISS. The US continues to use Russian ships sporadically, but has an alternative with SpaceX and its own options, such as the launch vehicle falcon or the ship Dragon.

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more players. Other players also play on the international board, such as Virgin, Blue Origin and lesser-known companies, but they compete for their share of the cake in a sector, that of space transportation, which is increasingly attracting more interest from private companies, such as Firefly Aerospace, Rocket Lab or Relativity Space, known for its commitment to 3D printing.

In Europe, Arianespace uses its Ariane 5 and Vega cargo rockets for smaller launches. Breton himself claimed following Roscosmos’ announcement that the EU will continue to develop Ariane 6 and Vega C with a very clear purpose: “Ensuring Europe’s strategic autonomy”. At the beginning of the year, in fact, the CEO of Arianespace showed his confidence Europe’s institutional customers using Soyud would switch to Vega C and Ariane 6, which is scheduled for its first release in end of this year.

Cover image | NASA (Unsplash)

On Saturday, 48 hours after Moscow began the invasion of Ukraine and after learning of the first EU sanctions, Roscosmos…

On Saturday, 48 hours after Moscow began the invasion of Ukraine and after learning of the first EU sanctions, Roscosmos…

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