It rains threats on Twitter, but can the Russians really crash the International Space Station?

It rains threats on Twitter, but can the Russians really crash the International Space Station?

In response to the sanctions imposed by the West, the director of Roscosmos has been regularly raising his voice on social media in recent weeks with the idea of ​​bringing down the International Space Station (literally and figuratively). show off? Or a real threat?

Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and the ensuing anger from other countries coupled with sanctions cooled the love between Russia and the West. And the consequences are felt not only here on Earth, but also in space. For example, the war in Ukraine forced the European Space Agency recently To postpone the launch of the Mars probe – which was to be launched with a Russian lander on a Russian launch vehicle† Meanwhile, in response to the imposed sanctions, Russia decided to immediately withdraw from the European launch center in Kourou, French Guiana, so that Europe would not have to rely on Russian Soyuz missiles to launch, for example, a constellation of navigational satellites. Galileo. The tensions are also felt on the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 400 kilometers. For example, the Russian Space Agency has already announced that experiments that will be carried out in cooperation with Germany on the Russian part of the International Space Station, will now be conducted only by the Russians – and therefore no longer in cooperation with the Germans.

International Space Station
But it’s not just cooperation within the International Space Station that is under pressure. The space station itself is also the subject of discussion in a number of Russian Twitter messages that at first glance leave little to the imagination. For example, Dmitry Rogozin, the director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, has repeatedly threatened on Twitter to take his hand off the International Space Station. Something he said would be guaranteed to result in an uncontrolled crash of the space station.

“At the altitude where the ISS is located – about 400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface – you still have a little bit of resistance to friction across the Earth’s atmosphere,” he explains. Nancy Vermeulenan astronomer, founder of the Space Training Academy (with which she prepares special astronauts for their spaceflight) and author of the recently published book ‘Everyone is an astronaut‘, From. “Because of this frictional drag, the ISS needs a tangential thrust to overcome this drag and continue orbiting around the Earth.” This extra amount of power is currently provided with some regularity by Russian spaceships moored at the International Space Station. Without this thrust, the Russians argue, the International Space Station would have been hurtling toward Earth long ago. Thus, in the future, the Russian withdrawal from the International Space Station could have serious consequences both for the space station and for the unfortunate region in which it will crash. “If you stop working with us, who will save the International Space Station from uncontrolled collapse in the United States or Europe?” Rogozin recently tweeted in response to the US sanctions. Then there is also the option to drop the 500-tonne chassis in India or China. Do you want them to be threatened by such a possibility? “

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assertive language. But are we really at the mercy of the Russians when it comes to keeping the International Space Station afloat? Vermeulen can reassure us somewhat. “It is possible that SpaceX with Dragon and Crew Dragon will also be able to give a boost to the International Space Station if necessary. So in this regard, America has to support-Plan.” Rogozin knows that now, too. Because when he wondered aloud in the Twitter thread we just quoted above who could save the world from the catastrophic collapse of the International Space Station, SpaceX President Elon Musk replied simply with a picture of the SpaceX logo.

untapped threats
Whether SpaceX should actually be called up to keep the International Space Station in space in the short term is another matter. Because Rogozin threatens to abandon the ISS, but can the Russians really do it? “It’s not really going to go that fast,” Vermeulen believes. She points out that it is certainly not the first time Rogozin has made explicit threats on Twitter. For example, in 2014 – when tensions were already escalating over Russia’s annexation of Crimea – Rogozin also threatened that the Russians would stop transporting American astronauts to the International Space Station. “Only use the trampoline to get to the International Space Station,” Rogozin told the Americans at the time. “A critical threat, because at that time the Russian Soyuz was the only means of transportation to the International Space Station.” But the threat – like many others spat on Twitter by the Roscosmos chief – has never been countered.

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In addition, according to Vermeulen, we should not underestimate the extent to which the cooperation partners within the International Space Station – in addition to the United States and Russia, and this also concerns the European Space Agency (ESA), Canada and Japan – overlap with each other. This entanglement makes it nearly impossible for one of the partners to unilaterally leave the project. “It’s a very complex collaboration,” Vermeulen says. “For example, the space station has different modules.” Most of them were built by either the United States or Russia, but the European Space Agency, Japan and some space companies also own some of the units that make up the International Space Station. “And these units are all linked together.” Thus, just getting out of the partnership and packing all your stuff is not an option.

No extension to the International Space Station?
So there is no need to immediately fear the uncontrolled collapse of the International Space Station. And the Russians can’t evade the International Space Station that way. However, it is highly doubtful, given the situation, that the Russians would be willing to expand cooperation within the soon-to-be-finished International Space Station. The current partnership lasts until 2024. America has proposed extending the partnership until 2030. And Europe certainly agrees. Only Russia does not agree. Russia is considering building its own space station to become independent.” Of course, the United States and Europe are not sitting still either. They are thinking of commercial space stations. For example, Axiom Space – like three other space companies – has already received funding from NASA to develop space stations in low Earth orbit. So in the future, at least in America, space stations will not be paid for by government agencies, but by private companies. But this transition will take several years. This is why America tends really to keep the International Space Station operating until 2030.” But before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had little interest in this and would not be inclined to it anymore. Ten years ago, that would have been a disaster. But now it is not inconceivable that other cooperation partners – with the help of space companies and perhaps also new government partners – could keep the International Space Station operating in the absence of Russia, Experts reported in Newsweek earlier this week

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changing dynamics
It remains to be seen what exactly the future of the International Space Station will look like. But it is clear to Vermeulen that the dynamics in space are changing. You can already see that China and Russia are working very closely together to create a lunar base on the south pole of the moon. At the same time, NASA is working on the Artemis project – which also targets the moon – and Europe and many other countries have joined in. So you can already see a split emerging. And I think this split will continue to accelerate. Meanwhile, India and the United Arab Emirates also have a robust space industry. So the space landscape is definitely changing.” And that’s not good for us Europeans. Vermeulen believes that “Europe is not going to benefit from this.” Because in terms of space travel – especially manned space flights – Europe is working very closely with Russia. It will work closely with NASA, but it will also have to make sure that it is strategically stronger. For example, the European Space Agency is now finally discussing developing its own launch systems to be able to launch astronauts independently from European soil.”

While space organizations have joined forces in the decades following the space race, it now appears that the cards have been shuffled again. Partnerships are reformed and space is made for new ones. The war in Ukraine threatens to accelerate all of that. Vermeulen stresses that there are only losers in this situation. “Where science and space travel must transcend borders and literally transcend conflicts on Earth, this is no longer the case.”

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