Russia’s war in Ukraine reveals more problems in space

There’s not much left for Roscosmos at this point other than the ISS – or a replacement to be called the Russian Orbital Service Station, which Borosiv says could be developed and launched as early as 2028.

That’s an overly optimistic timeline, Samson and Dreier argue, given that it took Russia more than 12 years to develop its Nauka ISS module, which launched to the ISS last year. “I don’t see that, given their funding issues. 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 still contribute to the ISS,” says Samson.

China is building its own space station, having launched the country’s second module, Wentian, last week. A third module, Mengtian, is expected to launch in October. Neither Chinese nor Russian officials have indicated they will collaborate on the station, which orbits at an inclination difficult to achieve from a Russian launch site. China and Russia have, however, agreed to jointly build a research station on the Moon in the 2030s.

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

“In Ukraine, we saw GPS jamming, communications jamming, Starlink jamming – which they eventually got around – and the cyberattack on ViaSat ground terminals,” says Kaitlyn Johnson, a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International. Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. But given the relatively low cost of such attacks, so far the Russians haven’t used as much cyberwarfare as experts had expected, Samson says.

In any case, the turbulent situation ultimately means more risk to spacecraft and the ground infrastructure they depend on, including commercial satellites that have been involved in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. These satellites include US-based satellite imagery companies like Maxar and Planet and radar imagery companies like Capella Space, which can spot military convoys and troop movements. Elon Musk and SpaceX had no qualms about intervening on Ukraine’s behalf as well by facilitating military communications with Starlink. It could be part of a trend, Johnson says; she thinks SpaceX is more like a traditional military contractor in the vein of Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, who work similarly with NASA and the Pentagon. SpaceX has government contracts to launch military satellites and build missile tracking satellites and is exploring a partnership with the Pentagon for spacelifting military supplies.

And when satellite companies become entangled in conflicts on the ground, it could have repercussions in space. According to the international law of armed conflict, the military can only attack military objectives, not civilians. But that won’t stop civilian “dual-purpose” spacecraft like Starlink’s and Maxar’s, and their ground infrastructure, from becoming potential targets for Russia, if used for both civilians and military in Ukraine, says David Koplow, a law professor at Georgetown and author of a recent article on the law of armed conflict in outer space.