Russia leaving the ISS could jeopardize the station’s future

Editor’s note: On July 26, 2022, Russia announced its plan to withdraw from the International Space Station “after 2024.” This article was published on the same day based on the statement of the head of the Russian space agency. But since then, Russia seems to have changed his attitude. A video posted by the Russian space agency and statements by a NASA official both indicated that Russia intends to continue operating the ISS with current partners until its own space station is completed. This station is scheduled to be in operation sometime in 2028.

Russia intends to withdraw from the International Space Station after 2024, according to an announcement by Yuri Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in a meeting with Vladimir Putin on July 26, 2022. Borisov also said that future efforts will focus on a new Russian space station.

Current agreements on the ISS have it operating through 2024, and the station needs Russian modules to stay in orbit. The United States and its partners have sought to extend the station’s life to 2030. Russia’s announcement, while not a breach of any agreement or an immediate threat to the station’s day-to-day operations, marks the culmination of months of political tensions involving the ISS.

During its 23-year lifespan, the station has been an important example of how Russia and the United States can work together despite being former adversaries. This cooperation has been particularly important as the countries’ relations have deteriorated in recent years. While it remains unclear whether the Russians will follow through on this announcement, it adds significant stress to the operation of the most successful international cooperation in space ever. As a researcher who studies space politics, I think the question now is whether the political relationship has become so bad that cooperation in space has become impossible.

The Zvezda module, at the very bottom left of this photo, is one of six Russian segments of the ISS and houses the engines used to keep the station in orbit.NASA

What would this outlet look like?

Russia operates six of the 17 modules of the ISS – including Zvezda, which houses the main propulsion system. This engine is critical to the station’s ability to remain in orbit and also to how it moves out of the way of hazardous space debris. Under the ISS agreements, Russia retains full control and legal authority over its modules.

It is currently unclear how Russia’s withdrawal will play out. Russia’s announcement only applies “after 2024”. In addition, Russia did not say whether it would allow the ISS partners to take control of the Russian modules and continue operating the station or whether it would require the modules to be shut down entirely.

Given that the Russian modules are necessary for station operation, it is uncertain whether the station would be able to operate without them. It is also unclear whether it would be possible to separate the Russian modules from the rest of the ISS, as the entire station was designed to be interconnected.

Depending on how and when Russia decides to withdraw from the station, partner countries will have to make tough choices about whether to scrap the ISS altogether or find creative solutions to keep it in the sky.

A continuation of political tensions

The announcement of the withdrawal is the latest in a series of events regarding the ISS that have occurred since Russia first invaded Ukraine in February. Russia’s decision to leave should not have a significant effect on the day-to-day functioning of the ISS. Like a number of smaller events that have occurred over the previous months, it is more political action.

NASA accused Russia of putting up an anti-Ukrainian propaganda image on the ISS after the Russian space agency posted this image of three cosmonauts holding a flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic.Roscosmos via Telegram

The first incident occurred in March when three Russian cosmonauts emerged from their capsule in yellow and blue flight suits that were the same color as the Ukrainian flag. Despite the similarity, Russian officials never talked about the coincidence. Then, on July 7, 2022, NASA publicly criticized Russia for apparently staging a propaganda image. In the photo, the three Russian cosmonauts pose with flags associated with regions of eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian forces.

There have been no disturbances in the operation of the station itself. Astronauts on the station continue to perform dozens of experiments every day, in addition to conducting joint spacewalks. But a significant effect of the rising tensions was the end of Russian participation in joint experiments with European nations aboard the ISS.

With little information available on how Russia’s withdrawal will affect the use of its modules in the short term, it seems likely that the biggest effects will be on scientific experiments.

Why now?

It is unclear why Russia made this announcement now.

Tensions around the ISS have been high since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. At the time, Dmitry Rogozin, then head of Roscosmos, hinted that Russia’s abandonment of the ISS might be a possibility. However, Rogozin was recently fired, and NASA and Roscosmos announced a seat change for the ISS. Under this agreement, an American astronaut would launch to the station on a future Soyuz mission, while a cosmonaut would launch on a future SpaceX Dragon launch. The two moves together suggested that the two sides can still find ways to work together in space. But it seems these impressions were misleading.

The announcement also comes as the US considers its future beyond the ISS. NASA is currently in the first phase of developing a commercial space station to replace the orbiting laboratory. While it would be difficult to accelerate the development of this new space station, it signals that the ISS is nearing the end of its productive and inspiring life, no matter what Russia does.

This article was originally published on The conversation of Wendy Whitman Cobb at Air University. Read the original article here.

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