ESA has ended its cooperation with Russia on Mars over the Russian special operation in Ukraine.
Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
In June, authorities from both the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) met in an unprecedented virtual summit to discuss joint missions. Chinese and Russian authorities were not present. ESA’s Director General, Josef Aschbacher claimed that since the outbreak of the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict this year, “the world order has changed”.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had suggested American rockets be employed to speed the now suspended European ExoMars. It aimed to investigate the geochemical aspects of the Martian landscapes in the search for forms of life or traces of it and to identify hazards for a future human mission to the planet. It also aimed to exploit solar electric power on the Martian surface and to access its subsurface, amongst other goals.
ESA and the formerly called Russian Federal Space Agency (now Roscosmos) signed a contract in August 2009, which included their cooperation on two Mars endeavors, Russia’s own Fobos-Grunt project and ESA’s ExoMars. Then, in December 2009, ESA also approved NASA’s participation in a Martian exploration mission. However, in 2012 NASA terminated its participation for budgetary reasons. In 2013, ESA and Roscosmos signed a deal thereby making Russia a full partner, with all scientific results becoming intellectual property of both the ESA itself and the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In 2016 the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) was sent to map methane’s sources on Mars. A second launch had been planned, but since 2016, however, ExoMars has suffered a series of delays due to financial problems. The Roscosmos lander called Kazachok was supposed to deliver the ESA Rosalind Franklin rover to Mars, but the European agency suspended this mission over the issue of Ukraine in March. It now expects to resume these operations, in a new mission (yet to be named), without employing Russian landing platforms. This change however will postpone such plans, which are now expected to take place after 2028. ESA has frozen almost all liaisons with the Russian Federation.
The European Agency, though, has maintained its partnership with China since at least 2003, and Chinese and European cosmonauts had been training together. In 2017, ESA director Rudiger Seine stated that the agency’s goal was “flying European astronauts on the Chinese space station from 2022”. The problem is that today many voices are demanding that this collaboration be suspended too, over Beijing’s supposed “no limits” partnership with Moscow. It had been already interrupted anyway due to the pandemic and at this point it might never resume.
As of today, the European Parliament has imposed sanctions on Chinese authorities over human rights issues pertaining to the Muslim minority in China and Beijing, in turn, has responded sanctioning Europe’s own Subcommittee on Human Rights. The “redline” for the West seems to have been the perceived Chinese support for Moscow in the Ukrainian crisis.
ESA needs partners, and amid such tensions, it would only be natural for the agency and NASA to further strengthen their ties, under a common “universalist” Western narrative that focuses on “human rights”, “democracy”, and so on, in spite of the contradictions and the hypocrisy that such discourse veils, while the West covers up Ukrainian own human rights abuses and its blatant far-right extremism and neo-Nazism.
Interestingly, NASA and Roscosmos announced on Friday that integrated Russian-American flights to the International Space Station (ISS) will remain. This announcement was made shortly after the Russian agency Director General Dmitry Rogozin was replaced with Yuri Borisov. Rogozin had been in the middle of tensions with the US, over his denouncing of Elon Musk, the head of the American SpaceX, whom he accused of providing military communication for “fascist forces” in Ukraine. Rogozin’s replacement has been interpreted by some as a kind of Russian concession, in the spirit of dialogue and scientific cooperation.
Two weeks ago, Nelson had stated that “you need both Russians and Americans to operate the space station”. Even in March, at the beginning of the current war, he said, referring to the civilian space programme: “Despite all of that, up in space, we can have a cooperation with our Russian friends, our colleagues.”
This new development is quite surprising considering the fact that the US-led West has been seeking to “cancel” Russia in all realms of life (even arts and science) amid an intense russophobic campaign. It might be yet another sign that Washington still considers adopting a more conciliatory tone, as plan B or at least toys with the idea, trying to keep some channels open, in spite of the aggressive rhetoric and the lack of good diplomacy.
In any case, one should expect things to get tense in space too, even in “civilian” areas, as NATO’s new space doctrine recognizes outer space as a “new operational domain”, where it seeks to oppose Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Moreover, there is now a space race over placing a base on the moon, with increasing Russian-Chinese collaboration. Emerging powers such as Turkey aspire to dominate space technology, and the new American Space Force uses its Gulf base to monitor Iran.
All civilian aspects of outer space exploration involve in fact highly strategic knowledge and applications. This realm could be understood as the “new sea”, with new continents to explore. Thus, the geopolitical and geoeconomic competition among powers that today encompasses earth and ocean should extend itself to the realm of space too, even extending to the celestial bodies.
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