Russia’s war in Ukraine reveals more problems in space

Not much speaks for Roscosmos right now other than the ISS — or a replacement called the Russian Orbital Service Station, which Borosiv claimed could be developed and launched as early as 2028.

That’s an overly optimistic timeline, Samson and Dreier argue, considering it took Russia more than 12 years to develop its Nauka module, which was launched to the ISS last year. “I don’t see that, considering their funding problems. And Russia’s civilian space program also has quality control issues and corruption issues. I don’t know if they could afford to build their own space station and continue to contribute to the ISS,” says Samson.

China is building its own space station after launching the country’s second module, Wentian, last week. A third module, Mengtian, is scheduled to launch in October. Neither Chinese nor Russian officials have indicated they will work together on this station, which orbits at an incline that would be difficult to reach from a Russian launch site. However, China and Russia have agreed to jointly build a research station on the moon in the 2030s.

One of Russia’s largest investments in space continues to be on the military side. The country has developed and deployed weapons and even used them against spacecraft, with consequences for international space security. Russia has tested anti-satellite missiles, most recently in November 2021, and also lasers, and has used electronic and cyber weapons against satellites and ground systems. (The US and Chinese militaries are working on similar technologies.)

“In Ukraine, we saw GPS jamming, communications disruption, the disruption of Starlink – which they eventually bypassed – and the cyber attack on ViaSat ground terminals,” says Kaitlyn Johnson, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-partisan think tank in Ukraine Washington, D.C. But considering the relatively low cost of such attacks, the Russians haven’t used as much cyber warfare as experts expected, Samson says.

In any case, the turbulent state of affairs ultimately means more risks for spacecraft and the ground infrastructure they depend on, including commercial satellites that have been implicated in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. These satellites include US-based satellite imaging companies like Maxar and Planet, and radar imaging companies like Capella Space, which can detect military convoys and troop movements. Elon Musk and SpaceX had no hesitation in also intervening on behalf of Ukraine by supporting military communications with Starlink. This could be part of a trend, Johnson says; She believes SpaceX is becoming more of a traditional military company in the style of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, who work in similar ways with both NASA and the Pentagon. SpaceX has government contracts to launch military satellites and build missile tracking satellites, and is exploring a Pentagon partnership for space transportation of military supplies.

And if satellite companies become entangled in conflicts on the ground, it could have ramifications in space. According to international law on armed conflict, military personnel may only attack military targets, not civilian ones. But that won’t stop civilian dual-use spacecraft like Starlink and Maxar’s, along with their ground infrastructure, from becoming potential targets for Russia when deployed in Ukraine for both civilian and military purposes, says David Koplow. a Georgetown law professor and author of a recent article on the law of armed conflict in space.

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