Russia will abandon the ISS after 2024: the future of Russian modules is uncertain

The boss of the Roscosmos space agency has confirmed to Vladimir Putin the disengagement of Russia from the ISS from 2024. The future of the Russian modules is uncertain.

2024 will therefore be the year that will mark the end of Russia’s contribution to the International Space Station (ISS). This deadline was confirmed on Tuesday July 26, 2022 by Yuri Borissov, the new director general of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Excerpts from an interview with Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, have been published on the Kremlin website.

The decision to leave [l’ISS] after 2024 was taken “, he said. Yuri Borissov took office in July, replacing Dmitri Rogozin, in office since 2018 and who is said to be close to Putin. In recent months, Rogozin had multiplied questionable remarks with regard to Elon Musk and Starlink, but also the ISS.

Yuri Borissov during his meeting with Vladimir Putin. // Source: Kremlin

The reasons that prompted the Kremlin to “unplug” Rogozin from his post to replace him with Borissov are not clear. The increasingly bellicose attitude of the person concerned towards his Western partners may have weighed in the balance. The difficulties of the Russian space industry, affected by Western sanctions in the context of the war in Ukraine, too.

Concerns about Russia’s space sector were mentioned in one sentence by Borissov in his exchange with Putin — at least in what was made public by the Kremlin. ” The sector is in a difficult situation “, he thus admitted. Among other things, Russia has difficulty obtaining supplies of components to build satellites and various equipment.

By 2024, however, there is no question of Russia failing in its duties. ” We will fulfill all our obligations to our partners “, confirmed the head of Roscosmos, “ within the framework of international cooperation “. And then ? Russia should carry out its own space station project, as in the past with the Mir program.

The decision to leave [l’ISS] after 2024 was taken »

Yuri Borisov

Mir was a Russian space station that was born in the Soviet era, in 1987. It had seven modules that were added over the next ten years. And if the station was mainly frequented by Russians, European astronauts also stayed on board, including the French Jean-Loup Chrétien, Michel Tognini, Jean-Pierre Haigneré, Claudie Haigneré and Léopold Eyharts.

Mir was de-orbited in 2001 and Russia was already contributing to the assembly of the ISS at the time. The first module is of Russian origin, by the way: Zarya. It was positioned in orbit around the Earth as early as 1998. And when Mir fell into the ocean, the ISS already had several other elements, including mechanical arms, solar panels, a laboratory and a few modules. .

What future for the Russian segment of the ISS?

The departure of Russia from 2024 necessarily raises the question of what will happen to the Russian segment of the ISS. Will Moscow leave it to others without consideration or will it want to sell it, ban its use, empty it, separate it from the rest? In fact, we will have to refer to the international agreement which sets the framework for cooperation and determines the rights and obligations of each.

Thus, the treaty provides that “ if a partner gives notice of its withdrawal from this agreement, the partners shall endeavor, in order to ensure the continuation of the program as a whole, to reach an agreement on the modalities of the withdrawal of this Partner before the effective date of its withdrawal “. The agreement also deals with the ownership of elements and equipment. Thus, when Russia notifies its partners of its intention to leave the ISS, discussions should begin to organize its withdrawal. This is an unprecedented situation: no partner of the ISS has ever announced its withdrawal before. It can therefore be expected, even if the procedure is described in the international agreement, that there will be adjustments in practice.

As for the future Russian space station, everything still remains to be done. Borissov only indicated that the national successor to the ISS, on the Russian side, will begin to emerge after 2024. To Putin, the head of Roscosmos affirmed that manned missions are among the priorities of the agency. The dimensions and scale of the station are still a mystery.

soyuz ms 18 ISS space station
The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft attached to the ISS. // Source: Flickr/CC/Nasa Johnson (cropped photo)

Notwithstanding the status of the Russian modules of the ISS, Russia is no longer completely indispensable for managing the daily life of the station. Westerners can refuel it themselves, provide round-trip transport for all crews, perform extra-vehicular outings or even adjust its orbit by using the propulsion of certain vessels.

The announced departure of the ISS from Russia from 2024 unfortunately reflects a break in relations between the Western chancelleries and the Kremlin, with a gap that is now abysmal because of the conflict in Ukraine. However, this decision is not a surprise: in the past, Rogozin had raised this threat, including before the start of the war.

As for the ISS, its days are relatively numbered: it is expected to operate for another ten years. Afterwards, the structure should be rushed into the ocean, far from any land. We are talking about a deadline of 2031. And then? The sequel will take place in orbit around the Moon. Cooperation is being set up to do as with the ISS, but without Russia this time.

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