we explain to you why Russia’s departure “after 2024” weighs on the atmosphere

A long and extensive international collaboration will come to an end. Yuri Borissov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, announced on Tuesday, July 26 that Russia would leave the International Space Station (ISS) “after 2024”. A real big bang, since the ISS since its origin is the result of coordinated work between the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. Franceinfo returns to this situation in five questions.

What did the head of Roscosmos say?

“We will undoubtedly fulfill all our obligations with regard to our partners (…), but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made”, Yuri Borissov said during a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here are the pictures (in Russian) from the Russian news agency Tass.

Yuri Borisov then outlined Russia’s future in space: “I think that by then we will start creating the Russian orbital station”who will be “main priority” of the national space program. “The future of Russian manned flights must first of all be based on a systemic and balanced scientific program, so that each flight enriches us with knowledge”he specified.

“It is a great honor for me, but also additional obligations”Yuri Borissov also commented. “The space domain is in a difficult situation, and I think that my main task (…) is not to lower the bar, but to raise it, above all by providing the space services necessary for the Russian economy. “

How did NASA and ESA respond?

Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS at NASA, held a press conference in Washington shortly after this announcement. “We have not received any official statement from our partner regarding today’s news”she assured. “So we will discuss their plans further.” But do the Americans want the Russians to leave the International Space Station? “Absolutely not”she said.

“They have been great partners, as have all of our partners, and we want to continue together as a partnership to operate the space station for the decade.”

Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS at NASA

at a press conference

The fact that Russia will leave the ISS after 2024 and build its own space station “is not new and had been mentioned before”notes for its part the European Space Agency (ESA), contacted by franceinfo.

What is the context of this ad?

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, international space cooperation with Russia has been stopped or suspended, such as Russian launches from Kourou, in Guyana or the Exomars mission. But within the ISS, work continued.

“The ISS has remained this little bubble in space, outside the Earth wars. A place where Russia, the United States and Europe cooperate.”

Mathilde Fontanez, editor-in-chief of the magazine “Epsiloon”.

in france info

“Although the scientific cooperation between the German and Russian astronauts was interrupted. Everything went normally”emphasizes the scientific journalist.

This was noted on March 30, a little over a month after the start of the Russian offensive: an American astronaut returned from the ISS aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in the company of two Russian cosmonauts, France Inter reported.

American astronaut Mark Vande Hei is picked up after landing on Earth in Kazakhstan on March 30, 2022. He made the journey from the International Space Station to Earth in the company of two Russian cosmonauts and aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.  (RUSSIAN SPACE AGENCY ROSCOSMOS/AFP)

Recently, NASA announced in mid-July to resume joint flights with the Russians to the ISS to ensure “continuity of operations” from the station. Two American astronauts will fly aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket on two separate missions, the first of which is scheduled for September. Two Russian cosmonauts will also fly aboard SpaceX rockets, a first.

More recently, Samantha Cristoforetti performed the first spacewalk by a European astronaut from the ISS on 22 July. The Italian worked for six hours at an altitude of about 400 km in the company of Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemiev.

“On board the station they are all professionals: the Russians do the job, the others too. They are all trained to work together and they are in such circumstances that they can only work together”says geographer Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, CNRS researcher and specialist in space issues.

What will be the consequences for the ISS?

At this point, everything remains to be clarified. But to understand the implications of Russia’s departure, we must return to its role. These past years, “the big change for the Russians is that we no longer need their ship to reach the International Space Station”recalls Isabelle Sourbès-Verger.

The American company SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, actually completed its first “operational” mission in November 2020 by sending four astronauts aboard the ISS. SpaceX thus became the first private company to achieve this feat. With this new means of space transportation, NASA has ended nine years of dependence on Russian spacecraft. Other trips with SpaceX have taken place since, including that of Frenchman Thomas Pesquets.

Confidence in Russia was further eroded when the ISS course was corrected for the first time by a non-Russian craft. Since 1998, and the beginning of the International Space Station, it is necessary to intervene regularly so that it does not deviate and to avoid that it ends up crashing to Earth. Historically seen, “This is the role of Russian cargo ships. Only they have the ability to turn on their engines to give a small boost to the station and guarantee the stability of its orbit.”explains Mathilde Fontanez.

In March, at the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia threatened to end these maneuvers. But at the end of June, a Cygnus cargo ship (from industrialist Northrop Grumman), which supplies the Station with food and equipment, conducted a test before leaving the ISS. While the freighter remained moored at the tation, the freighter fired its main engine for five minutes. This allowed the ISS to rise a few hundred meters.

However, this first successful attempt does not solve everything, and Russia’s withdrawal has consequences. “If the Russians pull out and take away their ability to put the station back into orbit, NASA is going to have to find a way to do it on its own, and it’s not going to be easy.”warned Bill Harwood, consultant on space issues, interviewed on the chain CBS (English).

For Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, questions especially arise regarding “the interview of the Russian side” of the International Space Station, and the possible difficulties this may cause. ISS works with an international agreement, and touching it entails long negotiations, she explains. She specifies that it will be “essentially discussions between lawyers” to define the conditions for departure from Russia.

“It’s a complicated situation for the Russians and for the Americans. Nobody wins in this.”

Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, researcher at CNRS

at france info

It is clear that nothing has been decided at the moment and the operation of the ISS is guaranteed until 2024. The European Space Agency points out that Roscosmos has confirmed that it will “to fulfill all its obligations with respect to its partners”.

When is the end of the ISS expected?

ESA intends to continue operating the European module Columbus until 2030. For its part, NASA announced at the beginning of the year that the end of the ISS was planned for 2031 (English). When the station is emptied of valuable and reusable material, the station will be desorbed and fall back to Earth. But not just anywhere: at the Nemo point. This place is the earth’s oceanic pole of inaccessibility. “There is practically nothing in this part of the South Pacific: no islands, no inhabitants, almost no sea or air traffic”, notes Benjamin Bastida Virgili, engineer in ESA’s space debris office, on franceinfo. This is where the Mir station ended in 2001 and the Skylab station in 1979.

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