The War in Ukraine provokes the worst Space Crisis in the History of Europe
The European Space Agency is evaluating how to stop depending on Russia, something that can strengthen its strength in the sector
Fernando Rull is still assimilating that the project to which he has dedicated the last 20 years of work has been left stranded by the war in Ukraine. This physicist from Granada leads one of the instruments of the Rosalind Franklin, the largest Mars exploration vehicle that Europe has developed and the first capable of drilling into the soil of Mars to search for subterranean life. For a few weeks the rover has been sealed and ready to go into space, but its launch – scheduled on a Russian rocket for September – will be delayed for years due to sanctions on Russia. “It is a tremendous impact, extremely painful, but the war needs this response from Europe, it is the priority,” Rull highlights.
Mars and Earth align every two years, which means that the distance to be traveled by a spacecraft is minimal. Therefore, missing a launch opportunity means waiting another two years. Three possibilities are now contemplated. One is to leave everything as it is, to hope that the crisis in Ukraine will be resolved soon and to think that the Rosalind Franklin could take off aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2024, which seems very unlikely. “If we go to 2026 by changing the rocket, we would also have to develop a complete landing system, which was another of Russia’s contributions in addition to the Soyuz,” Rull details. This is much more complex than it sounds: only the US and China have successfully landed a rover on Mars in the last half century. “It would be necessary to open the vehicle, which has been disinfected, and include the new components. Less than four years is a very short time to do all this”, warns Rull. For the researcher, the most realistic option is to wait until 2028 and launch with a European rocket, which implies profoundly modifying the mission. “Every instrument degrades over time and six years is too long. We would be launching something much older than now into space, ”he laments.
Right now, thousands of engineers and scientists working with ESA are making a comprehensive assessment of what Russia and Ukraine are putting into each of the many programs that are underway. You have to check every piece, every line of computer programming and every material used in the components of endless satellites, robotic probes, solar panels, rockets. There are bizarre examples. It is very difficult to determine if the titanium used in a component that has been assembled in a “friendly” country comes from Russia. Another major crisis: the satellites have to be transported to the launch site in huge specialized planes. In many cases Russian and Ukrainian-made Antonovs were used. There are other alternatives, such as the European Beluga. The problem is that there are not enough planes for all the satellites in the queue. It can be transported by ship, but this lengthens the trip by 14 days, which means that the launch site can be lost. It is difficult to find a similar situation since the beginning of space exploration in Europe in the fifties of the last century.
“Like transportation, energy or food, the space sector has suffered strong breaks in supply chains that force the calendar of many programs to be modified,” warns Jorge Lomba, head of Space for Industrial Technological Development, the organization of the Government that manages the participation of Spain in the ESA missions. The economic cost of these delays will amount to hundreds of millions of euros and if Europe wants to become independent from Russia in space, it will need an additional investment of several billion, estimates this expert.
Europe has no replacement for Soyuz rockets and spacecraft, something that affects ESA and many companies. There is also no alternative to the Soyuz capsules used to carry astronauts into space. The great hope is the Ariane 6 developed by ESA, which is still undergoing tests and is scheduled for its first flight at the end of the year. There are also smaller Vega rockets, but the situation is also critical. There are only three already built and it is not known if they can be manufactured.
The sanctions also hit space exploration hard. The joint exploration mission of the Moon between ESA and Russia has been suspended and what to do with the Russian scientists participating in the BepiColombo and Integral missions, which are in operation, is being analyzed. In a similar limbo is Euclid, a €600 million space telescope that will analyze thousands of galaxies to try to answer what two of the main components of the universe are: dark matter and dark energy. “The situation is very uncertain,” acknowledges Cristóbal Padilla, a researcher at the High Energy Physics Institute and a member of the mission. “Since the beginning of the war we have determined that the most feasible option is to launch on an Ariane 6 rather than a Soyuz,” he details. This will force the launch, scheduled for early 2023, to be delayed.