A fresh space spat has erupted between Astana and Moscow over the cost of environmental damage from a Russian rocket crash on the territory of Kazakhstan – and who will pay for it.
After totaling the environmental damage from the July crash of a Proton-M rocket after it blasted off from the Baikonur spaceport in central Kazakhstan, Astana sent Moscow a bill for $89 million earlier this month.
At one meeting of the bilateral group investigating the crash, officials from the Russian Federal Space Agency, known as Roskosmos, “declared their readiness to discuss compensation” for any environmental damage, Kazakhstan’s Environment Ministry said on November 22.
After receiving the bill, however, Russia does not look keen to cough up. “We have received the report about the total for the damage,” Russia’s Izvestiya daily quoted Sergey Gorbunov, head of the Roskosmos press service, as saying laconically on November 27. “The space agency will be conducting its own expert evaluation on this subject. Its aim is to assess the correctness of the calculations cited. It can be a question of paying compensation only for proven damage to the environment.”
Turkmenistan has chosen a privately made US rocket to launch its first satellite, an American official has said.
US ambassador to Turkmenistan Robert Patterson told a Turkmen-US business forum on November 12 that the telecoms satellite would travel aboard a Falcon 9 rocket made by California-based SpaceX in late 2014, Russia's RIA Novosti news agency reported.
French firm Thales Alenia Space is designing the satellite and training specialists from Turkmenistan’s National Space Agency, which was set up up in 2011, RIA Novosti said.
The satellite is expected to provide broadcasting, Internet and telephone communication and video conferencing services. Internet and mobile communications are tightly controlled in the gas-rich authoritarian country.
If the project is successful, Turkmenistan will be the second nation in Central Asia to build and launch its own satellite. Neighboring Kazakhstan launched a Russian-made KazSat satellite in 2006 but lost communications with it in 2008. In 2011, it launched the KazSat-2 satellite, designed by Russia and equipped by France.
As RIA Novosti points out, though this is Turkmenistan’s first satellite, in 2005 it launched a copy of the former president’s soporific spiritual guide, the Rukhnama, into space aboard a Russian rocket.
A month and a half after a Russian spacecraft exploded on takeoff in Kazakhstan, the two sides are still bickering over the cleanup.
Kazakhstan’s Tengrinews news agency reported on August 15 that Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Kapparov had expressed his “dissatisfaction” with the Russian space agency’s efforts to clean up after a Russian Proton-M rocket carrying up to 600 tons of toxic fuel exploded at the Baikonur launch site 17 seconds after takeoff on July 2.
Russia says it needs more time to clean up the poisonous mess.
“Roskosmos’s representative has asked for [an extra] 15 days for the detoxication of the area,” Tengrinews reported, quoting a statement from the Kazakh Environmental Protection Ministry.
The statement added that the Kazakh government is doing its utmost to “identify negative consequences of rockets on the environment and health of residents of Baikonur.” Local residents have complained they are being kept in the dark about the potential environmental and health impacts of the crash.
Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on August 15 that the Proton-M rocket carrying three Glonass satellites had contained 500 to 600 tons of heptyl, a highly toxic substance used as fuel to power Russian rockets.
A Russian rocket has exploded and crashed shortly after taking off from the Baikonur space-launch site in central Kazakhstan. The incident is likely to make further waves in Russo-Kazakh relations, which are already strained over cosmic cooperation.
Dramatic live video broadcast by the Rossiya 24 channel showed the Proton-M rocket taking off from Baikonur then veering off course before bursting into flames, breaking up and crashing to the ground.
The rocket engines cut out 17 seconds after takeoff and it crashed 2.5 kilometers from the launch pad, Russian space agency Roskosmos said. It added that there were no reported casualties or damage at the scene of the crash. Video of the incident showed the burning rocket, which was carrying three satellites into space, setting fire to the ground where it landed.
A Russian space industry source told RIA Novosti that problems with the flight control system were the likely cause of the crash, but Kazakh Emergencies Situations Minister Vladimir Boyko preliminarily put it down to engine failure, as a result of which there was “combustion of fuel, some of which fell to the ground and continued to burn,” he said in remarks quoted by Tengri News.
The frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is being flavored with some Cold-War spice, namely a space race.
Readers will recall that earlier this year Azerbaijan succeeded in flinging a satellite into orbit. Not to be outdone, Armenia is now making plans to place its own satellite in space.
The estimated cost of Armenia’s space ambitions – $250 million – should raise some eyebrows given that the country’s GDP (based on purchasing power parity) is roughly $19 billion, and it already has $4.37 billion in sovereign debt. But the economic practicality of the venture probably isn’t the most important consideration for Yerevan. With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict still stalemated, Armenian leaders don’t want to give their Azerbaijani counterparts any idea that they can’t keep up in any type of arms race.
Azerbaijan used its oil and gas wealth to underwrite its satellite project. Armenian telecommunications officials are saying they will scrape together funds from private investors for their satellite. To succeed, the country may put to use its key natural resource, the Armenian diaspora. Remittances from Armenians abroad make up a significant share of Armenia’s national income. Meanwhile, Russia, Armenia’s main regional ally and a space-exploration heavyweight, may lend money for the venture and help manufacture the satellite.
In crowd scenes in plays and movies, background actors in Russia are known to repeat the following tongue-twister when trying to feign conversation: “what do you talk about when there's nothing to talk about?” That phrase comes to mind when examining the latest effort by Kazakhstan and Russia to resolve a dispute over rocket launches at the Baikonur space center.
On February 8, a number of Russian-language outlets carried the news that Presidents Vladimir Putin and his Kazakhstani counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev had basically solved the dispute, which appears to center on the price tag for a new launch pad at Baikonur - and who pays for it - during a meeting in Moscow. After the meeting, the Yandex newsfeed was full of headlines like “Putin and Nazarbaev Announce that Acceptable Solutions to Baikonur Have Been Found.”
The funny thing is that it is not clear whether Putin and Nazarbayev came to any agreement at all. The only substantive development to come out of the Moscow meeting was that Kazakhstan and Russia will set aside their Baikonur differences until the fall, when the Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan Customs Union holds its scheduled meeting in Yekaterinburg.
“We gave the order regarding the preparation of a new Agreement on friendship and cooperation. I hope we will sign it in Yekaterinburg this fall,” said Nazarbayev during the February 8 meeting, as quoted by multiple Russian-language sources, all of which were ambiguous as to whether a new agreement would concern exclusively Baikonur, or whether Baikonur would be just one topic under a broader cooperation agreement.