Russia’s abandonment of the ISS opens a new era in space exploration

Russia’s abandonment of the ISS opens a new era in space exploration

Russias abandonment of the ISS opens a new era in

The Ukraine war is also being fought in space. Last Tuesday, Yuri Borisov, the new director of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), announced Russia’s impending departure from the International Space Station in a press conference with Vladimir Putin. With this gesture, Russia would sever the last link that ties its space program to those of the other powers with which it has worked since the end of the Cold War.

It is the culmination of the political tensions that the invasion of Ukraine triggered in the space sector. Projects with Russian participation have been gradually phased out in recent months: on the one hand, Europe has suspended missions worth millions as part of the sanctions against Russia; On the other hand, the Slavic country has withdrawn the missiles that launched most of the European missions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as space activities have always been closely linked to geopolitics. During the Cold War, competition between major powers led to a race for space dominance, and it was not until 1998 that the International Space Station (ISS) emerged in a new era of cooperation. The creation of this laboratory in orbit around the Earth has enabled major scientific advances and represents the longest cooperation in space to date. That is precisely why the Russian threat to leave the ISS has a strong symbolic charge.

However, it is not yet clear how the exit will work. Borisov’s vague words (who stated that Roscosmos would exit the project “after 2024” to focus on a future Russian base) blur the deadlines, and Russia could still postpone its presence at the station until 2030, the deadline for the other countries. That would leave him room to build his own space station, for which he has two avenues: reusing Russian components from the ISS or building an entirely new base. The much faster first option would not result in a habitable station, but rather a base to briefly land on. In addition, the ISS components would remain in their current orbit, which barely passes over Russia. This would make scientific work more difficult, and the Russians would still have to rely on a third country (previously Kazakhstan) to access their station from which to launch their missiles.

However, Borísov clarified on Friday that the end of his work on the ISS and the start of operations at the Russian station “must undoubtedly be synchronized”. “We simply said that after 2024 we will start the exit process. This will happen in mid-2024 or 2025, everything depends, including the state and operational capacity of the ISS itself,” according to EFE. The last Soviet space station, MIR, was commissioned in 1986 and was in orbit until it was jettisoned to the Pacific Ocean in 2000.

The option the Russian agency claims to have chosen is to build a space station from scratch. This was stated by Vladimir Soloviev, a Russian cosmonaut and head of ISS flight operations, in a recent interview published by Roscosmos. Soloviev estimates that the new Russian station will not become operational before 2030 and, despite the fact that this will involve a much higher investment and a longer delay, will have the great advantage that it can be put into an orbit that flies over the country. According to initial sketches, the project is worth 2,700 million rubles (37 million euros) and the first module would be launched in 2025, the first stone in a decade of work to complete the plan.

As for Russia’s departure from the ISS, Soloviev believes that this will only happen after the new Russian station is built: “We must continue to operate the ISS until the project of the Russian orbital station is more or less advanced.” On the other hand, Europe and the US also don’t believe that the phase-out is imminent: Josef Aschbacher, director of the European Space Agency, said in an interview with CNN that “after 2024 anything could mean staying even until 2030, in theory”, and Robyn Gatens, a NASA official, has assured that they “have not received any official communication about this,” according to SpaceNews.

If Borisov’s order to abandon the project so soon were followed to the letter, the consequences for Russia’s space program could be very negative. With the Russian economy suffering from the pressure of the war in Ukraine and international sanctions, none of the options for building a new base are realistic in the medium term. If the ISS were abandoned now, the Russian manned program would be left adrift and stuck in a long and damaging hiatus. If the station continued without Roscosmos’ help, it could delegitimize the Russians’ role and make it appear that they are not an integral part of space activities. as explained US astronaut Scott Kelly: “Russian cooperation on the ISS gives Putin credibility both nationally and internationally.”

How does this new situation affect space exploration?

Sooner or later, Russia’s exit will take place, and it seems that it will catalyze two processes that are already underway. The first is the rise of new space powers like China, which can converge with Russia or fill the void left by allying with Europe and the United States. Although the Asian giant has only been building its own Tiangong orbital base for a year, at the current rate the module is expected to be ready by the end of the year. This can be a major benefit for the Chinese government, which has also announced its intention to involve foreign astronauts in the mission.

The second process is increased private sector involvement in space exploration. Currently, Russia is responsible for the missiles that allow orbital maneuvers. In order for the space station to continue operating without Russia, a replacement would need to be found for Russian rockets, the role of which is essential in keeping the space station in orbit. Without her, he would fall back to earth. The situation that now seems most likely if the station is to remain operational is that the major aerospace companies Space X (USA) and Arianespace (France), who have already offered to equip the station with the necessary rockets, will intervene take care of. This collaboration is not a new phenomenon: NASA has delegated some tasks in low-Earth orbit to private entities for the past five years. However, increased participation by these companies could undermine the ability of government agencies to act, which can be risky in the long term.

So what to do without Russia? Undoubtedly, his departure from the ISS will mark a step into a phase when cut-off Russians will have to look for other ways to continue their space activities. It will also open up other challenges, particularly for the US and Europe, which will have to adapt to the prominence that new public and private actors have acquired. Without Russia, the remaining countries are heading towards a new space age in which existing alliances will be restructured.

Bethlehem Yu Irureta Goyena is a PhD researcher at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne.

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