Head of Russian Space Agency Threatens to Withhold Access to New ISS Robotic Arm

Head of Russian Space Agency Threatens to Withhold Access to New ISS Robotic Arm
ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet and JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide performing a spacewalk outside the ISS. (Image: NASA)

The invasion of Ukraine has taken a toll on Russia’s ongoing partnerships with the U.S. and Europe in space. Yesterday, the European Space Agency announced that it’s fully terminating its cooperation with its Russian counterpart on an upcoming mission to Mars, prompting Roscosmos to threaten access to Europe’s new robotic arm.

ESA and Russia were set to launch a lander and rover to Mars in September as part of the ExoMars mission, but ESA’s council announced yesterday that it will no longer be cooperating with Russia on the mission due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ESA’s Director General Josef Aschbacher wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

The space agency had released a statement earlier in February condemning the war, declaring that it was “assessing the consequences on each of our ongoing programs conducted in cooperation with the Russian state space agency Roscosmos.” ESA suspended the ExoMars mission, but the council’s latest decision declared that ESA is officially terminating its partnership with the Russian space agency on the Mars mission. In April, ESA announced that it won’t be taking part in Russia’s upcoming Luna misssions to the Moon, and for the same reasons.

Shortly after the council’s decision was made public, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin predictably went off on a rant against ESA through his Telegram page. “Did this head of the European Space Agency think how many thousands of scientists and engineers in Europe and Russia he crossed out with his decision?,” Rogozin wrote. “Is he ready to answer for sabotaging a joint Martian mission?” He added that Roscosmos is working on retrieving the Kazachok lander, which was built by Russia for the ExoMars mission and transported to Italy in 2019 for launch preparations.

Rogozin then went on to “command” Roscosmos cosmonauts on board the ISS to discontinue their work on the European robotic arm attached to the Russian orbital segment of the space station and challenging ESA’s Aschbacher to “fly to space” and do it himself. The 11.28 m-long arm launched to space in July 2021, and is designed to work outside the Russian side of the space station. But the robotic arm is not yet fully installed; cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev and Denis Matveev of Roscosmos conducted a spacewalk back in April to begin installation of the giant arm. Artemyev is scheduled to go on another spacewalk on July 21, along with ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, to help finish the installation work. This upcoming spacewalk is now in doubt, but it’s not clear if the cosmonauts will adhere to Rogozin’s “command.” As for the future of the ExoMars mission, that’s also in doubt, but Aschbacher said ESA will have more to say on the matter during a July 20 media briefing.

Tensions have been high as of late between Russia and its ISS partners. The Russian space agency recently posted photos on its official Telegram channel of three cosmonauts holding up the flags of Russian-backed regions in Ukraine in blatant support of the ongoing invasion. As a result, NASA issued a rare statement condemning the use of the orbital outpost as a place to conduct political propaganda.

In February, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that the international sanctions imposed against Russia would also impact its space program, stating that sanctions would “degrade their aerospace industry.” Russia can’t afford to lose both its European and U.S. counterparts, so the Roscosmos chief may need to cool off, and allow for operations to run smoothly aboard the orbiting space station.

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