Rogozin Courts Chinese Cooperation on ExoMars, Space Station

Vladimir Putin receives a briefing from Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin. (Credit: Office of the Russian President)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The Chinese government-owned CGTN website has an interview with Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin. With relations severely damaged with the West due to sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Roscosmos is increasingly focused on deepening cooperation with China’s surging space program. The partnership already includes jointly developing a crewed base on the moon in the 2030s.

On the suspended ExoMars mission with Europe, Rogozin said:

“In the construction of ExoMars, the main element is the landing module. The Mars research rover is not the essential element. I think we can make this mission happen with another partner like China or someone else.”

The European Space Agency (ESA) suspended cooperation with Roscosmos on the ExoMars mission after the Ukraine invasion in accordance with sanctions imposed by its member states. A Russian Proton booster was to have launched the Rosalind Franklin rover to the Red Planet later this year. The rover was built in Europe and has Russian instruments. In addition to launch, Russia’s other main contribution is the landing module that would deliver the rover to the surface.

An artist’s impression of the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin rover on the surface of Mars. (Credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

ESA is in talks with NASA about cooperating on a modified ExoMars mission. A launch won’t be possible until 2026 or 2028 because favorable launch windows only occur every 26 months.

China landed its Zhurong rover on the Martian surface last May. The Tianwen-1 spacecraft that deployed the lander and rover continues to orbit the Red Planet today.

Rogozin raised the possibility of cooperation on China’s first permanent space station, Tiangong, which was launched last year.

Regarding China’s space station, we can talk about creating new modules. To be friends in space, we must be friends on Earth. Russia and China are friends on Earth. I think China and Russia can work together in manned cosmonautics.

The second Chinese crew to occupy the facility is due to return later this month. China’s human space program was developed in close cooperation with Roscosmos, with station modules, Shenzhou transport spacecraft, and spacesuits modeled on Russian versions.

Shenzhou 13 launches to Tiangong space station.

China plans to launch two science modules to attach to the Tianhe space station core over the next year. The first one is scheduled to launch in May.

Rogozin tweeted on Saturday that Roscosmos is suspending cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS) until its partners the United States, Canada and Europe lift sanctions. (Japan is the other partner in the station.) He said details about how Russia would wind down participation in the space station would be forthcoming soon.

NASA has proposed extending station operations from 2026 to 2030. It’s not clear whether Russia would end its involvement in the station in 2024, or would withdraw at an earlier date.

Roscosmos is developing the Russian Orbiting Service Station (ROSS), which is designed to begin operations as ISS is phased out. Exactly when the facility would begin operations is unclear. Officials have discussed detaching ISS modules from the facility to use on ROSS.

Rogozin said it would be “impossible” for the United States and its partners to continue to operate ISS without Russian participation in the project.

“Soyuz is irreplaceable, because America doesn’t have any spacecraft. Russia helps the international space station avoid space rubbish and maintain orbital correction. The ISS is in a low earth orbit. It helps deliver fuels to the station. These are the main contributions from Russia and Roscosmos in particular.

SpaceX’s reusable cargo and Crew Dragon spacecraft service the station. Northrop Grumman’s expendable Cygnus spacecraft also provide cargo resupply services.

A Cygnus freighter previously provided a small boost to the space station’s orbit. A Cygnus vehicle currently attached to the station is schedule to provide a boost before it departs. It’s not clear whether Cygnus or Dragon spacecraft are capable of refueling the space station or moving the facility’s orbit to avoid space debris.

The Antares booster that launches Cygnus has a first stage built in Ukraine that is powered by two Russian-made engines. Northrop Grumman has enough stages and engines for two more launches, with the final one scheduled for next spring. After that, the company would have to launch Cygnus on another rocket. United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V previously launched three Cygnus freighters. But, ULA is phasing out that booster in favor of Vulcan Centaur, which won’t fly until the end of 2022 at the earliest.

Rogozin talked about the high expense of operating ISS. Ending Russian participation the program free up funding for Russia’s own station and cooperation with China on Tiangong and the planned lunar base. However, Western sanctions have severely affected the Russian economy. Despite the impacts, Rogozin struck a defiant tone.

“The sanctions have been imposed on Russia to make our economy and high-tech companies suffer, to make our people’s lives more difficult, and to bring Russia to its knees. Clearly, it’s not possible because of the strength and will of our people and country.”

Other observers of Russia and its space program are not as confident. They say that Roscosmos will have difficulty continuing to launch satellites due to restrictions on computer chips and other exports. It is possible the space program could get the needed components from China.