Russia To Ban Use Of European Robotic Arm On ISS

Credit: ESA

Deteriorating relations between Russia and Western countries are threatening the last bastion of mutual cooperation in space—the International Space Station (ISS).

Dmitry Rogozin, CEO of Roscosmos State Space Corp., vowed July 12 on social media to ban cosmonauts from working with the European Robotic Arm (ERA) installed on Russia’s new Nauka science module on the ISS. 

Rogozin was responding to a decision by the European Space Agency (ESA), which developed the manipulator, to terminate cooperation with Roscosmos on the ExoMars mission. ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said the reason for the decision was the continuing war in Ukraine and the resulting anti-Russian sanctions. 

“Let Aschbacher with his boss [Josep Borell, the high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy] fly to space by themselves and do something useful in their lives,” Rogozin wrote.

The mission included the ESA Rosalind Franklin rover and Russian Kazachok lander. It was expected to head for Mars atop a heavy Proton launch vehicle from the Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan in September to search for traces of past life on the red planet. Rogozin promised to make all efforts to return the Russian lander from Turin, Italy, where it had been passing preflight checks.

A Roscosmos spokesperson confirmed to Aviation Week that the ban to stop working on ERA had been issued and was being implemented. The robotic arm was unstowed from its launch position and activated for the first time during an April 28 Russian spacewalk. But further activities have been postponed due to malfunctions when ERA tried to move between the base points on Nauka’s surface.

Cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev and ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti were expected to resume preparations for the operational launch during the next spacewalk on July 21. The joint spacewalk has not been canceled despite the Russian ban to work with ERA, Roscosmos says.

The 11.2-m-long (37-ft.) manipulator was developed for the ESA by a number of European companies. It is designed to serve the Russian segment of the ISS, which is out of reach of two other ISS robotic arms—the Canadarm-2 and Japanese JEMRMS. According to Roscosmos subsidiary Energia Space Corp., which operates the Russian segment, the ERA became the sole property of Roscosmos when it lifted off as part of the Nauka module atop Proton on July 21, 2021.

The ERA can handle payloads of up to 8 tons with 5 mm accuracy in either automatic or manual modes. It can be operated by crew from both inside and outside the ISS. One of ERA’s first missions was to help complete the Nauka module’s deployment. The manipulator was expected to transfer the airlock and a radiator from Russia’s Rassvet mini-research module and install them on the Nauka. Without ERA, cosmonauts can only operate two telescopic 15-m-long Strela cranes attached to Russia’s Poisk and Zarya modules.