Wednesday, March 22, 2023

About That Latest Roscosmos Problem

Over the course of the last few days (it seems) I noticed some blurbs saying that the Russian space assets had been taken over by Kazakhstan, the country they're located in.  None of my usual sources had anything concrete on it until today.  It's a real standoff between Russia and Kazakhstan, there are real problems stemming from this and it doesn't look to blow over or otherwise go away on its own in a few days.   

Let's start here because people who don't study this area (like me!) might be hazy on some of these details.  Kazakhstan was part of the USSR when they (the USSR) decided to build their launch facilities, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, on the vast open plains of Kazakhstan beginning in 1955.  A few years later, it became the world's first spaceport with the launches of the Sputnik 1 and Vostok 1 missions.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia leased the spaceport from the government of Kazakhstan and currently has an agreement to use the facilities through the year 2050. Russia pays an annual lease fee of about $100 million. Neither country is particularly happy with the relationship; the Kazakh government feels like it is under-compensated, and the Russian government would like it to be in its own country, which is why it has moved in recent years to build a new launch site for most of its rockets in the Far East of Russia, at Vostochny. 

Screen capture of a Duck Duck Go map, with the red bubble pointing out the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  Note at the far left of the screen is Ukraine and north of that "all roads lead to Moscow."

Russia's rocket industry has fallen behind the west and desperately needs that facility to be available.  They're in the early stages of developing a new launch vehicle, the Soyuz-5, a three-stage rocket powered by RD-171 engines that will burn kerosene fuel. It's a medium lift vehicle but they hope to be able to compete cost-wise with SpaceX.  Their most recently publicized plans say they intend to launch the Soyuz-5 from the "Baiterek" launch pad at Baikonur and intended to start preliminary construction on that launch pad last year.  It doesn't appear that they've started. 

Earlier this month, a Kazakh news site, KZ24, reported that the Republic of Kazakhstan had seized the property of TsENKI, the Center for Utilization of Ground-based Space Infrastructure, in Kazakhstan. This firm, which is a subsidiary of Roscosmos, is responsible for launch pads and ground support equipment for the Russian space corporation. According to the report, [be aware - in the Kazakh language (?)] which was translated for Ars by Rob Mitchell, TsENKI is barred from removing any assets or materials from Kazakhstan.

"A ban on utilizing resources and conducting financial operations, as well as instability in negotiating positions as a whole are slowing down the priority direction of work at Baikonur, namely the construction of a new launch pad for the Soyuz-5 Booster," the report states.

Look at that map again.  Note the size of Kazakhstan compared to Ukraine, Georgia, and "the 'stans" (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and so on).  With the exception of Russia itself, Kazakhstan is the biggest country you can see on that map.  Perhaps that's why there's a lot of politics at play here.  Kazakhstan has nominally been a sovereign nation since 1991, but in the last three decades, it has maintained close ties to Russia and lies well within the Russo-political sphere.  

...Russia's invasion of Ukraine appears to have changed the calculus of this relationship. Namely, Kazakhstan's president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, apparently sees Russia's preoccupation with Ukraine as a window of opportunity to assert greater autonomy for Kazakhstan.

Russia, for its part, has pushed back on further autonomy for Kazakhstan. Weakening ties with the large country to its south could lead to a further crumbling of the Russian Federation. At times, the rhetoric has grown heated. For example, former Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev has called Kazakhstan an "artificial state" and, on the Russian social media site VKontakte, accused the neighboring country of planning genocide against ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan.

It wouldn't be a story involving Russia without that sort of blustery rhetoric. The former head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Grogozin, was pretty well-known for that.  The current head, Yuri Borisov, is quite a bit more restrained.  

Borisov, who prefers to keep a low profile, and at least in his public dealings with NASA has struck an apolitical posture, has so far not commented on the dispute. Nor has Roscosmos said anything on its Telegram channel [apparently in Russian], which now effectively acts as its primary public outreach tool.

It strikes me that this is some sort of political standoff, and until it's resolved the development of  the Soyuz-5 is on hold.  An interesting side note is that Russia has been working toward moving their launches into their own country, which is why it has moved in recent years to build that new launch site at Vostochny in the Far East of Russia.  A quick search for that name doesn't show me anything that I can pin down to a location.  There is a mountain (or mountain range) by that name on the Kamchatka peninsula which is pretty much on the Pacific, but I don't know if that's what they're referring to.

"May you live in interesting times," right? 




    1. That's awfully close to Commie China. They could have pushed another 300 km east and be out of the China sphere, well, partially out of the China sphere.

    2. Thanks for that link, Chuck. Right after posting, I had found another Vostochny close to Vladivostok, which is much closer to the Pacific but was using the mapping program and not the search engine. If I type Vostochny into the search engine, the cosmodrome, it comes right up.

  3. Good thing Russia's spent so many military assets on the Uke else Kazakstan would be facing a potential 'not an invasion' invasion.

  4. I suppose not having Russia and China as counter balancing each other in the world economic-military sphere is good for the Chinese owned Politicians?

    Weaken America and cripple Russia? Who Benefits, eh?

    Maybe that's why we are trying to destabilize Kazakhstan again?

    Unintended consequences indeed. Once is an accident, twice is happenstance, three times is enemy action.

    Ha! Nothing around the Neocons is unintended.

    Maybe the Whore of Babylon will get her mere hours of destruction?

    And since China plans in decades, instead of our politicians planning for next whore or bag of cash, the Chinese will simply wait until the satellites show the lights go out before they adsorb their next province?

    CHINA NEEDS farmland. Think about that Sir.

  5. The Kazakh site is in Russian. It translated cleanly with the browser. What I found interesting were the comments under the article: the commentarians are just as bite-me vicious at each other in Russian as in English.

    1. Ah... Thanks for that. Also, the next comment is interesting in its own way. I believe (maybe 75% sure) I have some of them on my mother's side of the family. There was never any shame associated with it that I ever heard. I wonder if it comes from some person at Blogger who knows better or if someone is actually trying to wipe out that word?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. No idea, but I expect they are easily ignorant enough to believe they should. After all, we're all supposed to say "Beijing" now instead of "Peking". Both "Cossack" and "Peking" are just anglicized versions of the same thing.

      [update: apparently the word is OK, there must have been some other reason it wouldn't go through]

  6. Another thing I found interesting is that blogger wouldn't let me post that comment using the older word for these folks, "C o s s a c k", which isn't denigrating in any way...

  7. as a site, how does Vostochny compare to any other launch sites? Roscosmos incurs moving and set up costs which it cannot afford. New site is north of old site which has some orbit costs. I am guessing weather will be less convenient.

  8. Like I dun tole people a year ago:

    The 'stans can smell blood in the water.
    Russia's weakness and ineptitude in Ukraine is going to have consequences in all the 'stans, and with China.
    And Russia is trotting out the exact same tired out pretexts they used for attacking and invading Ukraine.
    Next, they'll start trying the neo-Nazi angle.
    And the Vladophiles still won't be able to break suction.
    But it's going to be a real bummer when it turns of Vlad doesn't have a spare 300,000 troops and another 2000 tanks in running order to wrangle the Kazakhs back into the fold.
    Boo frickin' hoo.

    1. A fact that still isn't widely known is that 2000 is also the age, in years, of those tanks and other hardware they're using. OK, that's somewhat exaggerated.

  9. I wonder if the "Little Economic Situation" we seem to be in will affect Space Flight in general? I notice Virgin stopped operations, just before some banking issues occurred?

    Does Musk and company have assets not affected badly when the US dollar suffers?

    I wonder if economic troubles might calm down world troubles as the Zimbabwe Dollar doesn't bride too many politicians in the "Stans".

    Space is expensive, I hear.

    1. I don't want to call it my greatest fear, but it's in the top few. We finally get a guy with the engineering acumen, the money, the drive and (frankly) the balls to strive for something like Starship and it's in danger of being swept away by a global economic collapse.

      The dollar is dead, it just doesn't know it yet. Neither does the head of the Federal Reserve nor the heads of any of the Western nations' central banks.

      Virgin has been in financial trouble for a while. They're not surprising. SpaceX has a ton of business but if all the groups buying launches go bankrupt and go away, I expect that to collapse, too.

  10. I am always amazed by the Uzbek / Tajik / Kyrj border region. I think I’ll go look into the history…there must be a reason the lines look like that…right?

  11. Off Topic: have you noticed the increase of sun spot activity? How much comm havoc will this cause?

    1. We're having a relatively intense solar storm (G3) at the moment, with the planetary K index at 7 and it has been at high levels for the last 12 hours. That tends to affect the lower HF bands the most, but I haven't been in the shack to listen - it's been a busier day than usual. The geomagnetic storm affects the higher bands as well, but doesn't shut them down. On the other hand, we haven't had a big solar flare. No X or even M-class; the most recent was mid-level B class flare (B6.7) for the last. That chart goes back to Monday night east coast time.