The government of Kazakhstan has impounded all assets belonging to Russia at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. What this translates to? Time will tell; however, the importance of Baikonur to Roscosmos and the Russian space-faring community cannot be overstated. In the short term, no launches will likely take place.
The word impound itself is important, as this was not a seizure of space assets, but rather a move to hold assets in the name of the law. Here, as reported by Radio Free Europe, the Russian government has failed to pay roughly $30 million in fees from the “dirty” rockets that Russia continues to employ, which have adverse environmental effects on the country.
To be fair, there has been a dramatic reduction in Proton (the main “dirty” culprit, using nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine) launches overall, with five launches in 2019, one in 2020, two in 2021, one in 2022, and two in 2023. Angara, a follow-on rocket and specifically the A5 variant, is slated to replace Proton, but this newer rocket has had its issues, including a partial failure in 2021. With the current war in Ukraine, it is likely that Angara has been placed on the back burner and Proton will continue as Russia’s heavy-lift launch vehicle. This is not to say Angara is out, but without another launch vehicle, Proton looks to be in for the time being.
Baikonur is not some backwater launch site. Sputnik and Russia’s first crewed mission with astronaut Yuri Gagarin launched from Baikonur facilities, and missions to the International Space Station (ISS) all launch from there as well. Baikonur was within the frontiers of the USSR, but after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the facility fell and now falls within the borders of Kazakhstan. Russia has leased the Baikonur site from Kazakhstan since 1994.
The impounding of Russian assets will hinder launches for now. One would think that for the Russian Federation, $30 million would be a paltry sum. In actuality, this is likely a political move of the part of Kazakhstan. According to Radio Free Europe, even the Kazakh Communications Minister said that this was a “diplomatic miscalculation.” Whether Russia just pays the $30 million in order to be done with it will soon be found out.
Russian crewed missions to the ISS (the astronauts of countries besides Russia are often along for the ride) are only conducted from Baikonur. How this will all play out remains to be seen.
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