Russia’s exit from the International Space Station could spell the demise of the orbiting laboratory and sever another link to the West.

Russia operates six modules aboard the International Space Station. (Image credit: STS-122 shuttle crew, NASA via flickr, CC BY-NC-SA)

This article was originally published in The Conversation. The publication published an article in Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights on

Wendy Whitman Cobb (will open in a new tab)Professor of Security Strategy and Studies at the US Air Force School of Advanced Aviation and Space Studies.

Editor’s note: On July 26, 2022, Russia announced its plan to exit the International Space Station “after 2024”. This article was published on the same day based on a statement from the head of the Russian Space Agency. But since then, Russia seems to have changed its stance. (will open in a new tab). A video released by the Russian Space Agency and statements from a NASA official indicate that Russia intends to continue operating the ISS with current partners until its own space station is built. It is planned that this station will be put into operation sometime in 2028.

Russia intends to withdraw (will open in a new tab) from the International Space Station after 2024, according to Yuri Borisov (will open in a new tab)the new head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos at a meeting with Vladimir Putin on July 26, 2022. Borisov also said that future efforts will be focused on the new Russian space station.

Current agreements on the ISS call for it to operate until 2024, and the station needs Russian modules to stay in orbit. The United States and its partners sought to expand (will open in a new tab) station service life until 2030. The Russian announcement, while not a breach of any agreement or an immediate threat to the day-to-day operation of the station, marks the culmination of months of ISS-related political tension.

In its 23 years of existence, the station has become an important example of how Russia and the US can work together despite being former adversaries. This cooperation has been especially important as relations between the countries have deteriorated in recent years. While it remains unclear whether the Russians will follow through on this statement, it puts a significant strain on the functioning of the most successful international cooperation in space ever. As a scientist studying space politics (will open in a new tab)I think the question now is whether political relations have become so bad that joint work in space becomes impossible.

The Zvezda module (far left in this photo) is one of the six Russian segments of the ISS and contains the thrusters used to keep the station in orbit. (Image credit: NASA)

What will this retreat look like?

Russia operates six of the 17 ISS modules, including Zvezda, which houses the main engine system. This engine is vital to the station’s ability to stay in orbit. (will open in a new tab) and how it gets out of the way of dangerous space debris. Under the ISS agreements, Russia retains full control and legal authority over its modules.

It is currently unclear how the Russian withdrawal will end. Russia’s announcement only talks about “after 2024”. In addition, Russia did not say whether it would allow its ISS partners to take control of the Russian modules and continue to operate the station, or require the modules to be shut down completely.

Given that the Russian modules are required to operate the station, it is not clear whether the station will be able to operate. (will open in a new tab) without them. It’s also unclear if it will be possible to separate the Russian modules from the rest of the ISS, as the entire station is designed to be interconnected.

Depending on how and when Russia decides to leave the station, the partner countries will have to make a difficult choice: deorbit the ISS completely or find creative solutions to keep it in the sky.

Continued political tension

The withdrawal announcement is the latest in a series of ISS-related events that have taken place since Russia first invaded Ukraine in February. Russia’s decision to withdraw should not significantly affect the day-to-day operations of the ISS. Like a number of minor incidents that have occurred over the previous months, this is more of a political action.

NASA has accused Russia of staging an anti-Ukrainian propaganda photo on the ISS after the Russian space agency published a photo of three cosmonauts with the flag of the Luhansk People’s Republic. (Image courtesy of Roscosmos via Telegram)

The first incident occurred in March, when three Russian cosmonauts stepped out of a capsule wearing yellow-and-blue flight suits, similar in color to the Ukrainian flag. Despite the similarities, Russian officials have never spoken of the coincidence. Then, on July 7, 2022, NASA publicly criticized Russia for allegedly staging a propaganda photo. In the photo, three Russian cosmonauts pose with the flags of regions in eastern Ukraine occupied by Russian troops.

There were no violations in the work of the station itself. Astronauts at the station continue to conduct dozens of experiments every day, as well as carry out joint spacewalks. But one of the significant consequences of rising tensions was the end of Russia’s participation in joint experiments. (will open in a new tab) with European countries on board the ISS.

With little information on how Russia’s withdrawal will affect the use of its modules, in the short term it seems likely that the biggest impact will be on science experiments.

Why now?

It is not clear why Russia announced this now.

Tensions around the ISS have been high since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. At the time, Dmitry Rogozin, then head of Roscosmos, hinted that a Russian withdrawal from the ISS might be possible. (will open in a new tab). However, recently Rogozin was fired, and NASA and Roscosmos announced an exchange of seats on the ISS. Under this agreement, an American astronaut will travel to the station as part of a future Soyuz mission, and an astronaut will be launched as part of the upcoming SpaceX Dragon launch. The two joint movements suggest that both sides can still find ways to work together in space. But it seems that these impressions were deceptive.

The announcement also came as the US is considering a future beyond the ISS. NASA is currently in the first phase of developing a commercial space station. (will open in a new tab) as a replacement for the orbital laboratory. While it will be difficult to accelerate the development of this new space station, it signals that the ISS is nearing the end of its productive and inspiring life, no matter what Russia does.

This article is republished from The Conversation (will open in a new tab) under a Creative Commons license. Read original article (will open in a new tab).

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