The International Space Station is in a precarious position. Not only is it orbiting in hard vacuum high above our heads. It now finds itself wedged between two opposing worlds.
Last night, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos told state-controlled television that he would officially withdraw from the international project.
“The decision has been taken already. We’re not obliged to talk about it publicly,” general director Dmitry Rogozin said. “I can say this only: In accordance with our obligations, we’ll inform our partners about the end of our work on the ISS with a year’s notice.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, several cooperative space projects have fallen foul of international economic sanctions.
The ISS is just the highest-profile of them.
Which may be why it’s been the focus of so much heated rhetoric
“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the International Space Station from an uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?” Rogozin tweeted earlier this year.
Now astronauts and astronomers the world over are wondering what the future holds.
“The threat of uncontrolled re-entry is effectively weaponising the ISS. Not only is it drawing the space station into a terrestrial conflict, but it’s making the body of the space station a weapon in itself,” says Flinders University space archaeologist Dr Alice Gorman.
With colleagues Justin Walsh and Wendy Salmond from Chapman University in California, Dr Gorman is part of the International Space Station Archaeological Project (ISSAP) which is cataloguing human behaviour in orbit – both to preserve for posterity and study for future designs.
“This threat isn’t compatible with the Outer Space Treaty, which states that space is to be used for peaceful purposes only,” she adds.
But politics have been a part of the ISS’s daily life since it was launched.
“During the Russian annexation of the Crimea from the Ukraine in 2014, nationalistic and military symbols appeared in the Russian segment of the ISS that were clearly linked to the conflict,” Dr Gorman says. “Space is still being used to support particular ideologies, just as it was in the Cold War.”
Rogozin has made several threats to the future of the ISS – including removing its thruster power. Controversial billionaire Elon Musk retorted with a promise to provide enough of his SpaceX thrusters to keep the space station aloft.
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“It’s unclear whether SpaceX has this capacity if Russia were to announce its year’s notice today,” says Dr Gorman. “But it might be possible with more lead-up time”.
In the meantime, the ISS will continue to need a regular stream of craft carrying food, spares and replacement astronauts.
The United States only recently regained the ability to send astronauts into orbit through private enterprises such as Musk’s SpaceX and his high-profile competitor, Jeff Bezos – the billionaire founder of Blue Origins.
“At the moment, these commercial spacecraft can only dock with NASA ports,” explains Gorman. “There was a plan to install adapters on the Prichal module, launched in November 2021, which would allow SpaceX to dock there. But this hasn’t happened yet.”
Dr Gorman says the current diplomatic crisis bodes poorly for the future of space exploration: “If peaceful international cooperation is so difficult for one space station, what will this mean when there are numerous nations and organisations operating on the Moon?”
What’s also up in the air is what happens to the Russian modules if Russia withdraws completely. They could be mothballed, as happened to the damaged Spektr module on the Mir space station in 1997. Russia might make deals for commercial use of the modules, The modules might even be cut loose to de-orbit separately, leaving only the US, Japanese and European modules still aloft.
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