2022 ExoMars launch ‘very unlikely’ without Soyuz

28 Feb 2022

The ExoMars Rover ground test model undergoing testing. Image: Thales Alenia Space

Roscosmos has withdrawn from Europe’s spaceport, leaving the ESA to find an alternative to Soyuz for its space exploration launches.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has been forced to review its cooperation with Russia in light of the recent attacks against Ukraine and the global response.

In a statement released today (28 February), the ESA outlined decisions taken for the safety of its workforce involved in space programmes and in respect of the agency’s “European values”.

Future Human

The agency will be “fully implementing” sanctions already imposed on Russia by its 22 member states, which includes Ireland. It is also “assessing the consequences” of these sanctions on any ongoing programmes currently running in cooperation Roscosmos, the Russian state space agency. This review will also take into account coordination with industrial and international partners of the ESA, especially NASA.

Search for a Soyuz alternative

Last week, Roscosmos announced that it would withdraw its workforce from Kourou, the French Guiana spaceport, following the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU.

The Guiana Space Centre is the site of the ESA’s Soyuz launches, using the pioneering Russian spacecraft that has long been a staple of space exploration programmes.

Soyuz, which means ‘union’ in Russian, are often seen in action transporting crews to the International Space Station, which represents a major international collaboration involving ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA and CSA.

The withdrawal of Roscosmos means the ESA must now re-assess plans for the payloads under its remit and source alternative launch services, either from those currently operating or its own Ariane 6 and Vega C launchers, which are still in development.

This also calls into question the planned September launch of the ExoMars rover to Mars. The ESA is analysing the options to make a formal decision on these plans but stated that “the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely”.

At the time of Roscosmos’ exit from Kourou, however, European Commissioner for Space Thierry Breton was quick to assure that Europe’s satellite networks will not be impacted.

“This decision has no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus services. Nor does this decision put the continued development of these infrastructures at risk,” Breton said on Saturday, referring to Europe’s global navigation satellite system and its earth observation data satellite network, respectively.

“We are ready to act decisively, together with the member states, to protect these critical infrastructures in case of aggression, and continue to develop Ariane 6 and Vega C to ensure Europe’s strategic autonomy in the area of launchers,” he added.

This follows a series of responses from businesses and organisations following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tech players including Google, Facebook, Twitter and SpaceX have all taken action, while MIT has severed ties with a research university in Russia it helped establish a decade ago.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com