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Russia pulls out of European spaceport, abandoning a planned launch

Russian workers assemble a Soyuz rocket for the launch of satellites for the European Space Agency in December 2021.
Enlarge / Russian workers assemble a Soyuz rocket for the launch of satellites for the European Space Agency in December 2021.

European Space Agency

Russia has decided to suspend cooperation with European launch officials, and says it will withdraw its personnel from Europe’s main spaceport.

The chief of Russia’s main space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, announced the decision on Twitter Saturday morning, saying his country was responding to sanctions placed on Russia by the European Union. Europe, the United States, and other nations around the world issued significant sanctions on Russia this week after the country’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Approximately two dozen Russian technicians and engineers work at Russian facilities in French Guiana. This spaceport, called the Guiana Space Center, is where Europe launches its fleet of orbital rockets, including a “Europeanized” version of the Russian Soyuz vehicle for medium-lift missions. The Russians had been working to prepare a Soyuz rocket to launch two Galileo satellites for the European Union on April 6.

Europe has spent $10 billion developing the independent Galileo navigation system, which now has more than two dozen satellites in orbit. The continent has also used the Soyuz vehicle to launch elements of its Copernicus network of Earth observation satellites.

In response to Russia’s action, the European Commissioner for Space, Thierry Breton, issued a statement on Saturday that said there would be no consequences for the Galileo or Copernicus constellations in terms of continuity or quality of service. Nor, he said, would Russia’s suspension of cooperation impact their development.

“We will take all relevant decisions in response to this decision in due course and continue developing resolutely the second generation of these two EU sovereign space infrastructures,” Breton said. “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.”

The Russian decision does put the European Union in something of a bind, however. Europe’s small Vega rockets are not powerful enough to lift the Galileo and Copernicus satellites to their orbits. And the continent’s heavy lift vehicle, Ariane 5, is being retired in favor of the more efficient and cost-effective Ariane 6 rocket. However, all of the remaining Ariane 5 launches are spoken for, and the Ariane 6 rocket probably will not become operational until at least 2023.

So it is not clear what steps Europe might take in the interim, should it need to rapidly launch a Galileo or Copernicus satellite. The only Western company with the spare capacity for such a mission is probably the United States-based SpaceX, but it seems unlikely that Europe would want to support a competitor to its institutional launch industry.

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