Russia’s space ambitions are growing despite diplomatic tensions with the West

Moscow has said it will leave the International Space Station “after 2024”, amid political tensions with the West. Analysts have warned that the move could lead to the suspension of flights with Russian crews. Moscow will now focus on building its own space hub.

Confirmation of the long-delayed move comes as ties unravel between the Kremlin and the West over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and several rounds of crippling sanctions against Russia, including in the space sector.

The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has told the German space agency that it will no longer participate in “joint space experiments” on the International Space Station.

Earlier this year, Roscosmos suspended the launches of Russian Soyuz rockets from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana’s Kourou, withdrawing about a hundred of its workers.

Space experts said Russia’s departure from the International Space Station would seriously affect the country’s space sector and deal a significant blow to the manned flight program, a major source of Russian pride.

“Of course, we will fulfill all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made,” Yury Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, told President Vladimir Putin, according to a Kremlin account. of their meeting.

“I think that at this time we will start assembling a Russian orbital station,” Borisov added, calling it the domestic space program’s main priority.

USA surprised

“It’s an unfortunate development given the critical scientific work that’s been done at the ISS, the valuable professional collaboration our space agencies have had over the years,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding that Washington had been surprised by the announcement.

In a statement to AFP, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency “has not been made aware of any decisions by either partner, even as we continue to build future capabilities to ensure our large presence in low Earth orbit”.

The ISS is due to be retired after 2024, although the US space agency NASA says it could remain operational until at least 2030.

Until now, space exploration has been one of the few areas where cooperation between Russia and the United States and its allies had not been marred by tensions over Ukraine and elsewhere.

The ISS was launched in 1998 at a time of hope for cooperation between the US and Russia following their Cold War space race competition.

Russia is heavily dependent on imports of everything from production equipment to consumer goods, and the effects of Western sanctions are expected to destroy the country’s economy in the long term.

Space expert Vadim Lukashevich said that space science cannot flourish in a heavily sanctioned country.

– If the ISS ceases to exist in 2024, we will have nowhere to fly, Lukashevich told AFP. “At stake is the very preservation of manned flight in Russia, the birthplace of cosmonautics.”

Technical insulation

Pointing to Russia’s growing scientific and technological isolation, Lukashevich said authorities could not plan more than several months in advance and added that even if Russia were to build an orbiting station, it would be a throwback to the 1980s.

“It will be archaic, like an old woman’s apartment, with a push-button telephone and a record player,” he said.

Space analyst Vitaly Yegorov struck a similar note, saying it was almost impossible to build a new orbital station from scratch in a few years.

Yegorov also said Russia’s departure from the ISS meant Moscow might have to put its manned flight program on hold “for several years” or even “indefinitely”.

The move could also see Russia abandon its main spaceport, Baikonur, which it leases from Kazakhstan, Yegorov said.

Russian Soyuz rockets were the only way to reach the International Space Station until SpaceX, run by billionaire Elon Musk, debuted a capsule in 2020.

Backlash, scandals

The Soviet space program boasts a number of important achievements, including sending the first man into space in 1961 and launching the first satellite four years earlier.

But experts say Roscosmos is now a shadow of its former self and has suffered a series of setbacks in recent years, including corruption scandals and the loss of a number of satellites and other spacecraft.

Borisov, appointed in mid-July, replaced Dmitry Rogozin, a fiery politician known for his bombastic statements.

Rogozin had previously warned that without cooperation from Moscow, the ISS could de-orbit and fall on American or European territory.

Mars project on ice?

Another victim is the Rosalind Franklin rover, whose launch under the joint Russian-European ExoMars mission was already postponed from 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.

The rover, which is designed to drill into Mars to look for signs of life, is now “highly unlikely” to launch this year, the European Space Agency said.

ESA’s rover was to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with a Russian rocket, and then brought down to Mars by Russia’s Kazachok lander.

Getting Rosalind Franklin, named after an English chemist and DNA pioneer, into space without Russian help would require major overhauls — and the window for launch only comes every two years.

“It is heartbreaking for science and scientists who have built up links over the years and invested years of work,” said Isabelle Sourbes-Verger, a specialist in space policy at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

(Wwith news channels)

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