Russia agrees to extend International Space Station operations
All five of the International Space Station partner agencies have now agreed to operate the outpost through at least 2028.
The United States, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency have all since agreed to continue supporting ISS operations through 2030. Russia was the only holdout. But now the country has agreed to the international program through 2028, which is the 30th anniversary of the first module being launched.
“The International Space Station is an incredible partnership with a common goal to advance science and exploration,” said Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a media update. “Extending our time aboard this amazing platform allows us to reap the benefits of more than two decades of experiments and technology demonstrations, as well as continue to materialize even greater discovery to come.”
According to NASA, the space station was designed to be interdependent, relying on contributions from across the partnership agency’s to function. This means no agency can operate the ISS on its own.
For example, the United States Orbital Segment — which includes laboratories and equipment provided by the U.S., Canada, Japan and ESA — needs the propulsion systems in the Russian Orbital Segment to maintain the station’s altitude and help with the maintenance of its attitude relative to Earth.
The Russian modules, however, do not have enough power to operate on their own and require some of the power produced by the massive solar array wings on the U.S. side.
Despite Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the five partner agencies have continued to operate the outpost relatively drama free at a program level. However, for the first six months of the war, Russia’s now former space head, Dmitry Rogozin, was quite bombastic about various things and even jokingly threatened to detach the U.S. segment and leave an American astronaut stranded in space.
That rhetoric has all but vanished since Rogozin was replaced by the much quieter Yury Borisov.
Aside from its war in Ukraine, the country’s engineers are concerned about the future integrity of the oldest Russia modules — Zarya and Zvezda — with Zvezda having a slow, but manageable leak since 2020.
Additionally, the primary plan for deorbiting the ISS at the end of its useful life — currently expected after 2030 — requires three Russia Progress cargo ships to lower its orbit to burn up in the atmosphere over the Southern Pacific Ocean.
Just in case Progress spacecraft become unavailable, NASA’s 2024 budget proposal includes the development of a tug that could be used instead, but at a cost of around a billion dollars over the course of its multi-year development.
In the meantime, NASA continues to help companies develop commercial successors to the ISS. One such company is Axiom Space, which plans to build a new “Axiom orbital segment” in front of the U.S. segment on the ISS.
Once completed, and when the International Space Station’s time in space is complete, the Axiom segment will be detached to form an independent outpost for commercial operations.
Axiom currently has several modules in production with the first module expected to fly to the outpost as early as late 2025.
Russia also plans to build its own ISS successor — the Russian Orbital Service Station. It would be in a polar orbit, rather than the 51.6-degree inclined orbit of the ISS. Exactly when or if it gets built and launched is unclear.
Meanwhile, the other ISS partner agencies are expected to continue their cooperation in deep space with the Lunar Gateway and Artemis program. Russia has declined to join the U.S.-led program.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.