ONE NON-HUMAN casualty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems likely to be at least some of its scientific collaborations with other countries, starting with those involving Roscosmos, its state-owned space corporation. On February 25th Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency (ESA), tweeted that all partnerships between his organisation and Roscosmos would continue—especially the second part of a mission called ExoMars, which is scheduled to blast off in September from Baikonur Cosmodrome, a site technically in Kazakhstan, but leased to Russia. That aspiration lasted until February 28th, when ESA put out a statement which said, “Regarding the ExoMars programme continuation, the sanctions and the wider context make a launch in 2022 very unlikely.”
Planetary alignments mean that if lift-off does not happen in September, it will have to wait at least 26 months. But the amount of Russian hardware involved in bringing the lander that is the mission’s payload safely to Mars’s surface means even this is questionable unless the diplomatic climate has changed by then.
ESA’s announcement happened after Roscosmos itself said on February 26th that it was withdrawing its personnel from the spaceport at Kourou, in French Guiana—the biggest rocket-launching facility in the European Union. Roscosmos had had a deal since 2005 to use Kourou to launch Soyuz rockets (not to be confused with the Soyuz space capsules which carry cosmonauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and are launched from Baikonur). Besides harming Russia, this sudden withdrawal raises questions over Europe’s Galileo global-positioning and Copernicus Earth-observation satellite networks, both of which are launched partly by Soyuz—though ESA made reassuring noises about this being no problem.
As to the ISS itself, in a comment regarded by many as positively weird, Dmitry Rogozin, Roscosmos’s boss, tweeted, “If you block co-operation with us, who will save the International Space Station from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?” There are not, as it happens, plans to block such co-operation. Though it is true that Joe Biden, America’s president, did say his country’s sanctions “will degrade their [Russia’s] aerospace industry, including their space programme”, NASA observed that, “The new export control measures will continue to allow us-Russia civil space operations”, and also said that no changes are planned to its support for “ongoing in-orbit and ground-station operations”. In any case, the International Space Station is just that: international. Different modules belong to different countries. Russia could not be denied access to its section.
Russia’s involvement in two other scientific collaborations, CERN and ITER, both based in Europe, has yet to come under scrutiny. CERN is a particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, with which Russia, though not a formal member state, has had a lengthy collaboration. ITER is an attempt to build a fusion reactor in the south of France, in which Russia is fully engaged.
CERN, though a prestigious outfit, is also an esoteric one. It is a long time since new discoveries in particle physics affected technology, industry or warfare. ITER is in dreadful shape. It is behind schedule, over budget and regulators have recently suspended a crucial operation for safety reasons. It is also increasingly irrelevant in the face of privately funded fusion-power startups. Prestige aside (and not even really that in the case of ITER), Russia would lose little if its ties with these were severed.
What really could damage Russian science is a withdrawal of academic collaboration by foreign institutions. Here, Germany has led the way. On February 24th its government ordered the country’s universities to freeze relations with Russian counterparts. The Massachusetts Institution of Technology, in America, followed suit on the 25th, terminating links with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, which it helped to found a decade ago. If other academic collaborations come to similar ends, as they surely will unless a peace deal is rapidly negotiated, that will hurt a lot.