Blaming European sanctions enacted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian space agency said Saturday it is recalling dozens of engineers and technicians from French Guiana and suspending Soyuz rocket operations there, grounding a pair of European navigation satellites previously set for launch in early April.
The decision, announced by Russian space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin, also brings into question the long-term future of the Soyuz launch base at the Guiana Space Center, a European-run spaceport on the northeastern coast of South America.
Russian teams were preparing a Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage for launch April 5 from the spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana, with two European Galileo navigation satellites. The two European satellites and their Russian launch vehicle have already been delivered to the space center, but the preparations require expertise from Russian crews.
“In response to EU sanctions against our enterprises, Roscosmos is suspending cooperation with European partners in organizing space launches from the Kourou cosmodrome and withdrawing its technical personnel, including the consolidated launch crew, from French Guiana,” Rogozin tweeted Saturday.
The Soyuz launch base in French Guiana entered service in 2011 under the auspices of a cooperative agreement between Roscosmos and the European Space Agency. Since then, 27 Soyuz rockets have launched from the Guiana Space Center, carrying Galileo navigation satellites, commercial communications and Earth observation payloads, space science missions, and French and Italian military satellites.
French Guiana is an overseas department of France, meaning the spaceport is built on the territory of a NATO country. The Soyuz launch pad in French Guiana is European-owned, and the French launch service provider Arianespace oversees launch operations at the site.
It took three years and cost European governments $800 million to develop the Soyuz launch capability in French Guiana.
The European Union announced new sanctions this week against Russia, targeting Russian businesses and defense enterprises after Russia’s military invaded Ukraine. On Friday, the EU said it would freeze any European assets of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Roscosmos said there are 87 Russian citizens currently in French Guiana preparing for the planned Soyuz launch in April. They are employees of NPO Lavochkin, which manufactures the Fregat upper stage, and the Progress Rocket Space Center, builder of Russia’s Soyuz rocket. There are also staff at the Guiana Space Center from TsENKI, a Russian company that provides ground infrastructure and support services for space missions.
“The issue of the departure of Russian employees is being worked out,” Roscosmos said.
“I confirm that this decision has no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus services,” said Thierry Breton, European commissioner for space, referring to Europe’s Copernicus fleet of environmental monitoring satellites. “Nor does this decision put the continued development of these infrastructures at risk.
“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 in a statement.
“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.”
After the April launch, another Soyuz rocket was scheduled to take off from French Guiana later this year with two additional Galileo navigation satellites. The Galileo network is Europe’s independent space-based global navigation system, an analog to the U.S. military’s GPS fleet, Russia’s Glonass system, and China’s Beidou navigation constellation.
Galileo satellites are already beaming navigation signals to users around the world. More than 2 billion smartphones have been sold with Galileo-enabled chipsets, allowing users to locate themselves with navigation signals from Galileo satellites alongside data from GPS network.
The most recent launch for the Galileo system in December deployed the 27th and 28th operational Galileo satellites on a Soyuz rocket. The Galileo program is a multibillion-dollar initiative managed by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, a separate entity from ESA.
The full Galileo constellation needs 30 satellites, including 24 active platforms and six spares. The launches later this year with Soyuz rockets were planned to complete the full deployment of the network, but that timetable is in doubt with Soyuz operations suspended.
After this year, future Galileo satellites are planned to launch on European Ariane 6 rockets to upgrade the system and replace old spacecraft. The Ariane 6 rocket’s debut has been delayed, and its first launch is scheduled for no earlier than the end of 2022. Once Ariane 6 is flying, ESA and
When fully operational, the Galileo network will provide independent navigation fixes for users without needing GPS signals. With both networks available, combining Galileo and GPS data can give users a more precise position estimate.
Other missions booked to launch on Soyuz rockets from French Guiana include the French military’s CSO 3 optical spy satellite and the EarthCARE climate science mission for the European Space Agency.
ESA’s Euclid telescope, designed to study dark energy and dark matter, is also assigned to a Soyuz launch from French Guiana next year.
Arianespace and ESA did not respond to questions on the future of Soyuz launches in French Guiana, but ESA issued a statement Friday — before Roscosmos said it was suspending Soyuz operations at the Guiana Space Center — saying it was assessing “possible consequences for ESA’s ongoing activities” caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“ESA is committed to continuing the work of all its program activities, including the ongoing ExoMars launch campaign, to ensure their successful implementation, wherever possible,” the agency said.
The ExoMars mission is a joint program between ESA and Roscosmos. The first element the ExoMars mission was a European-built science orbiter launched to Mars in 2016 by a Russian Proton rocket.
The next piece of ExoMars is a European rover designed to be delivered to the surface of the Red Planet next year by a Russian-built entry vehicle and lander. The ExoMars rover is scheduled to launch in September on another Russian Proton rocket.
The mission architecture requires close cooperation between Russia and Europe, with Russia responsible for the launch and landing. ESA’s rover carries most of the scientific instrumentation, including payloads supplied by NASA.
NASA said Thursday that new U.S. sanctions against Russia announced by President Biden will not have any immediate effects on the International Space Station, another program that requires close international cooperation between Western nations and Russia.
Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, also said Saturday that Roscosmos will stop cooperation with NASA on the Venera-D project, a planned robotic exploration mission to Venus. He said continuing with the partnership would be “inappropriate.”
Arianespace also manages commercial Soyuz rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. The next of those missions is set for takeoff from Kazakhstan on March 4 with 36 more satellites for OneWeb’s global internet network, and officials have announced any delay for that launch.
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