Roskosmos seeks retrieval of Soyuz rockets
European and Russian officials are discussing a potential deal to return a pair of Soyuz rockets stuck in French Guiana in exchange for Western satellites held by Russia.
Struggling with the cascading fallout from Russia's escalation of the war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Roskosmos still works on closing aborted joint projects with its former partners almost a year later.
The largest and, therefore, the most problematic items that Roskosmos has to deal with are the components of Soyuz rockets which are stuck at the European launch site near Kourou in French Guiana. All Soyuz missions from this facility in South America have been cancelled, including the launch of two navigation satellites for the European Galileo constellation, which was scheduled for April 5, 2022. Ironically, these satellites were originally intended to fly on the Ariane-6 rocket, but were re-assigned to Soyuz due to delays with the development of the new-generation European vehicle.
On Feb. 17, 2022, just a week before Moscow started a large-scale war, Roskosmos announced that specialists from its TsENKI ground infrastructure division and from RKTs Progress, the Soyuz manufacturer, had begun unloading stages of the Soyuz-ST-B rocket inside the vehicle processing building in French Guiana in preparation for the assembly of the booster stages. In parallel, specialists from Moscow-based NPO Lavochkin were conducting preparations for the fueling of the Fregat upper stage for fueling, scheduled for March, but never started.
On orders from Roskosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, dozens of Russian specialists were abruptly withdrawn from French Guiana in early March 2022, leaving behind the rocket stages, containers with propellant, support hardware and documentation. The Paris-based Arianespace company, which contracted Roskosmos to provide and support Soyuz launches with European and most non-Russian commercial payloads, took custody of the stored equipment until its expected return to Russia. However, due to the severe breakdown in diplomatic relations and economic activities between Europe and Moscow, the Russian hardware remained in French Guiana for the rest of 2022. ESA officials later confirmed that two Soyuz rockets had remained at the center.
However, in January 2023, an industry source told RussianSpaceWeb.com that Arianespace representatives had been exploring a potential deal with Roskosmos on the exchange of Soyuz rocket components stranded in French Guiana for a group of 36 OneWeb satellites stuck in Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan after the aborted 14th launch for the Internet constellation. The satellites were held at the Russian-controlled facility in Kazakhstan per the order by Rogozin, but the newly appointed head of the Roskosmos State Corporation Yuri Borisov was reportedly opened to negotiations on their fate.
Unfortunately, due to severely curtailed ties between Russia and the West, even the exchange agreement in principle would still leave nearly insurmountable logistical obstacles facing the plan. In the case of the Soyuz rockets, dozens of Russian specialists from the sanctioned RKTs Progress would have to obtain necessary visas and find a route to travel to French Guiana to support the preparation and loading of the Russian hardware on cargo ships for a 8,000-kilometer journey from the port of Cayenne to St. Petersburg. Although such transfers were routine during many years of the Russian-European space cooperation, they would be very difficult if not impossible to arrange in the new reality of Russian isolation.
On the OneWeb side, officials considered various logistical options, including flying a small recovery team to Baikonur and then quickly transferring the satellites by land from the Russian-controlled base to the surrounding Kazakh territory to minimize interaction with Russian authorities and avoiding layover in Moscow, which was often practiced during air deliveries of Western cargo to Baikonur.
According to industry sources, negotiations between Roskosmos and Arianespace were going very slowly and were facing hurdles which could potentially be impossible to overcome until the end of the war.
On January 30, the head of RKTs Progress Dmitry Baranov held a press-conference with the Russian press, where he said that no talks on the fate of the Russian Soyuz rockets would be possible until the end of the war. He also said that the vehicles were customized for the pad in Guiana, meaning that their launches from Russian launch sites were not possible.
Around 20 missions of Soyuz rockets planned in 2023
After the January 30 event, Baranov was also quoted by the official TASS news agency as promising "around 20" launches of Soyuz rockets during 2023. Baranov also said that the company had been in stable economic condition at the time and its workers saw some salary increases to around 56 thousand rubles ($800 per month on average) "though not as high as it would be desirable."
During 2022, personnel at RKTs Progress fell by 1,000 people to 15,000 and three quarters of them left on their own accord, according to Baranov. He also added that none of the personnel at the company had been mobilized for the Russian invasion of Ukraine for the exception of around 10 volunteers. There were also reports of further layoffs at RKTs Progress in the first half of 2023.
During the "Joint Day of Military Acceptance" conducted at the National Defense Control Center on Jan. 27, 2023, Baranov reported that the 5th Directorate of the Military Acceptance Service just received two newly manufactured Soyuz-2-1a rockets and one Soyuz-2-1v vehicle, TASS reported.
On February 1, Roskosmos announced that two Soyuz-2-1a rockets for launching Progress MS-23 and Soyuz MS-24 spacecraft had been shipped from the manufacturing site at RKTs Progress in Samara to the Baikonur launch site. Two more Soyuz-2-1a rockets for Progress missions were shipped to Baikonur in the second half of May. Around the same time, two other rockets were being prepared for shipment to Vostochny within next couple of months.
February 9: Progress MS-22 lifts off
Opening a super-busy year of missions headed to the ISS in 2023 was the Progress MS-22 tanker and cargo spacecraft that lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on a Soyuz-2-1a rocket.
February 24: Soyuz MS-23 replacement ship lifts off
For the first time an empty crew vehicle headed to the International Space Station, ISS, to provide a return ride for two cosmonauts and an astronaut whose original ship suffered a major failure. A Soyuz-2-1a rocket lifted off with Soyuz MS-23 spacecraft on a mission to replace the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft, which lost all its coolant fluid on Dec. 15, 2022.
March 23: Soyuz launches a military satellite
A Soyuz-2-1a rocket launched a classified payload, believed to be the fourth Bars-M cartography satellite. The vehicle lifted off from the Plesetsk, north of Moscow, on March 23, 2023.
May 24: Progress MS-23 re-supplies ISS
A Soyuz-2-1a rocket launched the second Progress cargo ship of 2023 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on May 24, 2023. The vehicle successfully docked at the International Space Station less than 3.5 hours later.
May 27: Roskosmos launches radar-observation satellite
A Soyuz-2 rocket lifted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome on May 27, 2023, carrying the Kondor FKA No. 1 radar satellite. It is the third attempt to orbit all-weather, day-and-night imaging satellite by the Russian industry after two of its short-lived predecessors were launched for the Russian and South-African militaries in a three-decade-long development effort.
Summary of Soyuz rocket launches in 2023:
Bars-M3 lifts off on March 23, 2023. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense