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How will Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS affect the space station?

How will Russia’s withdrawal from the ISS affect the space station?
Photo Credit: Nasa/SpaceX
4 Apr, 2022
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The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has attracted sanctions from across the world, with the United States of America, Canada and numerous European countries declaring economic sanctions that involve restricting Russia’s involvement in global payment infrastructure and trade. In retaliation, Dmitry Rogozin, the chief of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, has called such sanctions “illegal”, and in response, threatened to suspend Russian collaboration in global space projects. The biggest of these collaborations is with the International Space Station (ISS) – the 24-year-old space platform that Russia has now threatened to leave.

What has Roscosmos’ chief said about the ISS?

On 25 February, Rogozin had said in a statement that if western nations do not revoke the economic sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, Roscosmos may seek to stop the shared duties that it executes aboard the ISS. As a consequence, he had threatened that the 500-tonne ISS may go into free fall, and crash into the USA, parts of Europe, China or even India.

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On Saturday, 2 April, Rogozin made a series of posts on Twitter – revealing his purported correspondences with the heads of three space agencies involved with the ISS – Bill Nelson, administrator of USA’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), and Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

In these posts, Rogozin revealed that he wrote to each of the heads asking for repealing of economic sanctions put against Russia. While ESA’s Aschbacher stated that Rogozin’s appeal has been forwarded to the respective heads of the European Union, Nasa and CSA responded by stating that they seek to “promote further cooperation within the ISS and its operation, including any necessary cooperation under the ISS program.”

Answering these alleged responses, Rogozin said on Saturday, “I consider this state of affairs unacceptable. Sanctions from the US, Canada, the European Union and Japan are aimed at blocking financial, economic and production activities of our high-tech enterprises. The purpose of the sanctions is to kill the Russian economy, plunge our people into despair and hunger, and bring our country to its knees. It is clear that they will not be able to do this, but the intentions are clear. That's why I believe that the restoration of normal relations between partners in the International Space Station and other joint projects is possible only with the complete and unconditional lifting of illegal sanctions.”

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The Russian space agency chief concluded by stating that the Russian government will shortly announce a timeline for when they plan to withdraw support from the ISS.

Exactly what may happen if Russia abandons the space station?

As part of its efforts towards the ISS, Russia has ‘Progress MS-19’, a cargo spacecraft docked at the control module of the ISS. Using its engines, the ISS receives periodic boosts to ensure that it remains orbiting the Earth from within its orbit, and does not fall back towards Earth. Russia is also responsible for the overall control and guidance of the ISS – a crucial aspect of the space station.

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How have other nations reacted to the threat?

So far, USA has maintained that there have been no changes made to international, collaborative efforts with regards to the ISS. In response to Rogozin’s previous threats, an official Nasa statement had said that “the new export control measures will continue to allow US-Russia civil space operations.” It had also said that no expected changes were likely to be seen in terms of both in-orbit and on-ground operations of space-related activities.

On Thursday, 31 March, Nasa’s associate administrator Kathy Lueders said in a press conference that Roscosmos has been in talks with Nasa to extend their collaboration on the ISS project until 2030 – the timeline after which the ISS is expected to be discontinued. The present contract between USA and Russia runs until 2024. However, Rogozin’s latest remark comes in contrast to Lueders’ assessment of the state of space collaboration between the two nations at the moment.

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Last week, Roscosmos also facilitated the safe return to Earth for Nasa astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, aboard a Soyuz rocket alongside two cosmonauts. Prior to this, the Russian government had said that they would not prevent the astronaut’s safe return to Earth, despite the erstwhile geopolitical tensions.

The purported responses issued to Rogozin by Nelson, Aschbacher and Campbell of Nasa, ESA and CSA respectively can be read here, here and here.

Does India stand at any potential risk due to the ISS conflict?

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While Rogozin has made no mention of India in his latest statement, his first statement had claimed that if left without Russia’s control and guidance manoeuvre systems, the ISS may crash on to a large number of nations, which included USA, Europe, China and India.

Such a reality is not out of the question, at least in theory, since the trajectory of the ISS does cross over Indian territory.

Can ISS continue without Russian collaboration?

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Simply put, yes. Russia’s primary threat with regards to the ISS so far has been to withdraw support of its orbital boosts and navigation control. These two aspects are critical, since at 400km above the Earth’s surface on its low-Earth orbit (LEO) and at over 28,000kph orbital speed, the ISS goes around the Earth once every 90-odd minutes. Without Russia’s present activities, the ISS would continue into a slow descent into the Earth’s atmosphere, burn up in the upper atmosphere itself, and eventually crash into Earth as fiery chunks of debris.

However, this is not the only feasible reality. Other spacecraft docked to the ISS could also offer the control and orbital navigation maintenance service on the ISS. In fact, after Rogozin’s first round of threats, SpaceX chief Elon Musk had tweeted to claim that if Roscosmos decides to withdraw support from the ISS, a Crew Dragon spacecraft belonging to SpaceX can be docked in place of the Prestige MS-19 to continue keeping the ISS in orbit.