A Soyuz rocket (left) and a set of OneWeb satellites (right), here in an Indian LVM 3. © Arianespace / Roscosmos / OneWeb
The war in Ukraine continues to rage and undermine international relations a little more every day. This also applies to aerospace. For since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the once productive collaboration between Roscosmos and Arianespace, which has led to some of the greatest secrets of European aerospace, has taken a turn for the worse; the former partners are currently discussing a ” prisoner exchange ” not like the others.
One of the two protagonists in this affair is the Soyuz launcher. It is certainly an aging device (its design dates back to the 50s and 60s), but which has displayed fairly exemplary reliability for very long years. He therefore established himself as one of the main workhorses of European aerospace. We owe Soyuz the putting into orbit of a phenomenal number of satellites, heaps of trips to the ISS…
As part of the collaboration with Arianespace, many of these launchers took off from the Kourou base in French Guiana. This dynamic unfortunately ended with the almost total breakdown of cooperation between the two agencies, which hardly collaborate anymore, except in the case of the ISS where partial cooperation has been maintained.
A Soyuz and 36 OneWeb satellites want to go home
This distancing is largely due to the undisguised hostility of Dmitriy Rogozin, the former boss of Roscomos. In March, about a month after the start of the invasion, he recalled dozens of Russian specialists who officiated in Kourou. The latter quickly packed their bags, leaving behind them documents, equipment… and above all entire launcher stages.
Arianespace has therefore prepared these elements with the aim of sending them back to Russia. But relations continued to deteriorate under the battering of the Russian executive, and the opportunity never presented itself. Result, the Soyuz turned into a prisoner of warand Arianespace has become its jailer in spite of herself.
We are also witnessing a comparable situation on the other side of the globe. Indeed Roscosmos had been mandated to put into orbit the 14th series of the OneWeb constellation, the British equivalent of SpaceX’s Starlink web satellites. All this material was to be launched in March 2022 aboard a Soyuz from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
As expected, Rogozin jumped at the chance. In the midst of an anti-European crusade, he issued an ultimatum to his collaborators by publishing a long list of unreasonable demands.
Дмитрий Рогозин в интервью телеканалу “Rossiya 24”:
⚡ Роскосмос предупредил компанию OneWeb о том, что если она до 21:30 мск 4 марта не предоставит гарантии неприменения её спутников в военных целях, то ракету «Союз-2.1б» снимут со старта. pic.twitter.com/EYDeaH79Qe
— РОСКОСМОС (@roscosmos) March 2, 2022
Following the expected refusal of the European contingent, he ordered suspension of flight and seizure of satellites until further notice. Today, the devices are still in the possession of the Russian contingent.
The new boss of Roscosmos is more open
This new excess of zeal continued to drive the nail in the coffin of the relations between Arianespace and Roscosmos. Even Vladimir Poutine, however master in the matter, was apparently tired by these provocations in series. And on July 15, 2022, the ax fell: Rogozin was asked to pack his bags and leave his chair to Yuri Borissova much more discreet former soldier and engineer – and incidentally competent, Rogozin having no real technical training.
Putin fires controversial head of Russian space agency
It is quite difficult to judge the beginning of his mandate in the current context. But since taking office, he has shown himself much more delicate, diplomatic and pragmatic than its predecessor. According to RussianSpaceWeb, one of its first decisions was to relaunch discussions with Arianespace around OneWeb satellites. An outcome that Rogozin did not even want to hear about.
An anonymous source told the same media that a semblance of negotiation had even begun. The Arianespace staff is currently exploring the idea of an agreement with Roscosmos to carry out what would be, in essence, an exchange of ” prisoners of war “. The idea would be to swap the Soyuz elements still stuck in Kourou for the OneWeb satellites grounded by Rogozine.
RussianSpaceWeb says Borissov would be open to the idea. If so, this would be excellent news for the future of relations between the two agencies. But this exchange of good practices could be called into question by factors beyond their control.
Indeed, even if the diplomatic channel now seems to be reopened, the same cannot be said of the supply chains. The transfer of this type of material cannot be improvised and requires major resources. To repatriate its Soyuz to Russia, Roscosmos would have to dispatch a large number of specialists and equipment directly on site.
Considerable logistical obstacles
The problem is that these people would necessarily have to get a Visa. However, the issuance of these documents has been suspended due to the international crisis (see this government post). And that’s just the first hurdle. Because to reach St Petersburg from the port of Cayenne, you have to travel more than 8000 kilometers by sea. This involves crossing the territorial waters of many states. And knowing the current isolation of Russia on the international scene, organizing such a trip will be anything but a cakewalk.
RussianWebSpace explains that on the OneWeb side, several avenues have already been explored. But in any case, it would also be necessary to send a team of specialists on site. And there again, it seems difficult to envisage in the current context. Or even impossible if Arianespace does not return the Soyuz elements in return. So don’t expect rapid development. It is quite possible that the situation will not settle down before the end of the conflict. And that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda on the Kremlin side.
At least we can be satisfied that the new boss of Roscosmos has agreed to discuss the problem. With a bit of luck, this will start again on the basis healthy once the war is over. And incidentally, it will also be an opportunity to turn the Rogozin page once and for all, after this inglorious period for a legendary institution like Roscosmos.