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Just in: Russia to quit International Space Station ‘after 2024’

In the midst of intense hostilities between Moscow and the West over the battle in Ukraine, the new space commander of Russia said Tuesday that the country would leave the International Space Station in 2024 and concentrate on developing its own orbiting base.

The statement, although not anticipated, casts doubt on the future of the space station, which has been operating for 24 years. According to experts, maintaining the station without the Russians would be a “nightmare,” to put it mildly. Up until 2030, NASA and its collaborators had wanted to keep it in operation.

Yuri Borisov, who was nominated last month to head Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, stated during a meeting with President Vladimir Putin that “the decision to leave the station after 2024 has been taken.” “I anticipate by then we will start creating a Russian orbiting station,” he said.

One of the final areas of collaboration between the United States and the Kremlin is the space station, which has long been a symbol of post-Cold War international efforts in the cause of research.

The goal of Moscow to depart the space station after 2024, when the present international agreements for its operation expire, was reiterated in Borisov’s remarks.

Russian authorities have long expressed a desire to launch their own space station and have griped that the aging International Space Station’s wear and tear are endangering safety and may make it difficult to prolong its useful life.

Cost may also be a consideration: the Russian Space Agency lost a significant revenue stream when NASA astronauts began flying with Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm to and from the space station. For years, NASA has been paying Russian Soyuz rockets tens of millions of dollars each seat for trips to and from the space station.

The Russian declaration will undoubtedly fuel rumors that Moscow is negotiating with the West to lift sanctions related to the crisis in Ukraine. Dmitry Rogozin, Borisov’s predecessor, said last month that Moscow could only participate in discussions over a potential extension of the station’s activities if the United States lifted its sanctions against Russian space companies.

Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada all share management of the space station. Since the outpost’s initial component was sent into orbit in 1998, it has been continually occupied for over 22 years. It is used to test out equipment for the upcoming moon and Mars missions as well as perform scientific studies in zero gravity.

A crew of seven people generally works on the station for months at a period while it travels roughly 260 miles (420 kilometers) above Earth. Currently on board are three Russians, three Americans, and one Italian.
Shuttle Commander Terrence Wilcutt, right, and Mir Commander Anatoly Solovyev, left, hug after opening the hatches between the space shuttle Endeavour and the Russian Space station Mir Saturday, Jan. 24, 1998 in this image from television. Russia will opt out of the International Space Station after 2024 and focus on building its own orbiting outpost, the country's newly appointed space chief said Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (NASA)
The about football field-length, $100 billion-plus facility is divided into two major sections: one is controlled by Russia, and the other is by the United States and other nations. What will need to be changed on the Russian side of the complex to keep the space station running safely after Moscow leaves were not immediately obvious?

Scott Kelly, a former NASA astronaut who spent 340 days nonstop in space in 2015 and 2016, said the Russian remark “may be simply more bluster,” adding that the phrase “beyond 2024” is ambiguous and open-ended.

Since they wouldn’t have a human spaceflight program without the ISS, he said, “I think Russia will remain as long as they can afford to.” Cooperation with the West also gives other, non-aligned countries and their own citizens some measure of legitimacy, which Putin needs because the conflict in Ukraine has diminished his reputation.

Remember that Russia’s finest game is chess, former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted in response to the news. According to Kelly, if Russia were to leave, it would be difficult for the other countries to run the station, but not impossible.

The Russian remark “does not speak well for the future of the ISS,” according to Jordan Bimm, a historian of science, technology, and medicine at the University of Chicago. He also noted that “it generates a constellation of concerns about sustaining the station that doesn’t have straightforward solutions.”

He questioned, “What would ‘leaving’ look like? Will the last cosmonauts just de-berth a Soyuz and land on Earth with the Russian-made modules still attached? Will they disable them before departing? Will negotiations be necessary for NASA and its foreign partners to purchase them and keep utilizing them? Is it even possible to maintain these components without Russian expertise?

Although it is technically feasible to continue operating the station after the Russians leave, according to Bimm, “practically it might be a nightmare depending on how difficult Russia chose to make it for NASA and its remaining partners.”

The most pressing issue would be how to regularly boost the complex to maintain its orbit if the Russian components of the station were separated or rendered unworkable, he added. The station’s orbit is raised and aligned using Russian spacecraft that deliver supplies and people to the station.

The replacement of Moscow’s ground communications is one of the additional factors, according to Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. It is yet unknown if the Russians will really be able to launch and manage their own independent station, he said.

The Ukrainian conflict and the Western sanctions that have restricted Russia’s access to Western technology have made it clear that Russia has made no attempt to create its own space station so far, and the job now seems particularly difficult.

Russian and Soviet space stations, notably Mir, existed long before the International Space Station was built. The United States also had Skylab.

Given the warnings coming out of Moscow, according to John Logsdon, founder and former head of the George Washington University institution, NASA has had plenty of time to prepare for a Russian pullout and would be failing in its job if it hadn’t been considering this for a while. He added: “Its political usefulness certainly has eroded over time. One choice is to proclaim success with the station and use this as a reason to deorbit it and divert the money towards exploration.

Source: AP News

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Written by Alex Bruno

Freelance space writer Alex Bruno specializes in covering China's quickly expanding space industry. In 2021, he started writing for SpaceXMania. He also contributes to publications including SpaceNews, IEEE Spectrum, National Geographic, Sky & Telescope, and New Scientist. When Alex was a small child, he first experienced the space bug after seeing Voyager photographs of alien planets in our solar system. When not in space, Alex likes to go trail jogging in the Finnish countryside.

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