Part of the dustup between the U.S. and Russia over the latter’s activities in Crimea last year involved the two countries cooperation in space. While activities on the International Space Station (ISS) have continued, other cooperative efforts in space have slowed, if not stopped.
However, operations at the ISS have continued with little incident, and the latest expedition will launch for the station later this month. But some may be concerned about the recent announcement that the Russians plan to disengage from the ISS and use the modules they contributed to construct their own station.
That sounds a bit more drastic than it is. Last year the Russians were talking about breaking off the ISS partnership in 2020, while the U.S. announced its intention to continue station activities until at least 2024. The U.S. may be interested in continuing operations until 2028, but the future of the ISS will be at least a little longer than expected.
As for Russia taking its components and building its own station, it is arguably preferable to what would be the likely alternative – deorbiting those segments to burn up in the atmosphere. As the country wants to continue having a permanent presence in space, and may be economically constrained from creating a lot of new components, this recycling is understandable.
What’s not clear, at least to me, is what the U.S. might do should Russia follow through with this plan to remove its segments. A cursory glance at the ISS components suggests that what would remain of the ISS includes the functional components necessary to operate on its own. But I doubt it could be as simple as disconnecting the two elements of the ISS and tugging each to a new orbital spot. At least there will be 10 years or so to figure this out.