The announcement of new sanctions against Russia yesterday provoked a strong reaction from the head of the Russian space program, Dmitry Rogozin, who appeared to threaten that the restrictions would destroy Russian cooperation with NASA and lead to the demise of the International Space Station. Although Rogozin is known for his brutal and provocative statements, his comments did raise concerns about what NASA would do if the Russians abruptly withdraw from the ISS program — a move that could pose a substantial problem.
President Joe Biden announced the new sanctions on Thursday in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, claiming sanctions are “deteriorating” [Russia’s] aerospace industry, including their space programme.” A sanctions list released by the White House noted experts’ denial of “sensitive technology” such as semiconductors, telecommunications and avionics. In response, Rogozin, the head of Russia’s state-owned space company Roscosmos, fired off a series of threatening tweets about how the sanctions could affect the ISS program. Specifically, he claimed that without Russia there would be no one to correct the space station’s orbit, and that the ISS could crash into the US, Europe, India or China.
There is some truth in what Rogozin says. NASA relies on Russian propulsion to help control the attitude or position and orientation of the International Space Station in space, periodically boosting the station into orbit. Without Russia, NASA would have to come up with a new solution to keep the station on the right path in space so that the vehicle doesn’t slowly fall out of orbit and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. “If the Russians run away, you have this huge object that will randomly return somewhere on Earth,” said Wayne Hale, former program manager for NASA’s Space Shuttle and member of NASA’s Advisory Board. The edge† However, such a scenario would take some time to manifest, potentially giving NASA some time to come up with an alternative solution. “It’s not like a week, it will probably be several years,” Hale says.
But the Russians rely heavily on NASA to keep the space station active as well. NASA also helps monitor the space station’s position in orbit, and the space agency is solely responsible for generating electricity for the entire vehicle. When it comes to the ISS, the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is a symbiotic one, and the departure of either side would cause problems. “Either we stick together or it’s not going to work,” Hale says.
As of now, there is no need to worry about the demise of the ISS. Both NASA and Roscosmos say they are still working to keep the space station afloat. “NASA continues to work with all of our international partners, including the State Space Corporation Roscosmos, for the continued safe operations of the International Space Station,” Josh Finch, a NASA spokesperson, said in an email to The edge† “The new export control measures will continue to enable cooperation between the US and Russia in the civilian space. No changes are planned in the agency’s support for ongoing orbit and ground station operations.” Roscosmos also acknowledged in a statement to: The edge in the early hours of the invasion on Thursday that the two organizations are still working together.
That collaboration will be necessary as there are quite a few important events on the agenda over the next month. On March 18, Roscosmos will launch a crew of three Russian cosmonauts aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, according to NASA, who will join the seven-member crew already on the ISS. That crew consists of two cosmonauts, four NASA astronauts and a German astronaut from the European Space Agency. On March 30, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and two cosmonauts will return to Earth in another Soyuz capsule, the space agency says. Vande Hei’s safe return will depend on Russia.
But despite the need for cooperation right now, Rogozin has made some pretty terrifying statements insinuating that the relationship between Roscosmos and NASA is cracking in the face of the sanctions. And he painted a grim future scenario for the ISS if there is a complete rupture.
“Perhaps President Biden is off topic, so explain to him that the correction of the station’s orbit, the avoidance of dangerous encounters with space debris, with which your talented businessmen have polluted the Earth’s orbit, is produced solely by the engines of the Russian Progress MS freighters,” Rogozin tweeted in Russian, translated by Google Translate. “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-ton construction to India and China. Would you threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all risk is yours.”
Many people online tried to deduce the exact meaning of Rogozin’s tweets, with some wondering whether he would actually threaten to fly the space station over a populated area. What seems more likely is that Rogozin is suggesting that without Russia stepping in to take evasive measures, the ISS could potentially fall on one of these countries, which are periodically below the station in its orbit. (The station actually covers parts of Russia, but mostly along the southern border of the country.)
It sounds like a scary scenario, but it’s not entirely without merit. The height of objects in low Earth orbit, such as the ISS, decreases over time, and they need adjustments to maintain their orbit. And the reality is that the ISS mainly uses Russian cargo spaceships called Progress to periodically increase the height of the station and maintain the vehicle’s orbit around Earth.
Whenever docked to the ISS, the Progress spacecraft will use their onboard thrusters to give the station a little nudge — either to change its altitude or clear it away from debris. Another way Russia can boost the ISS is by using thrusters embedded in the country’s Zvezda module, although this option is not widely used. (There are also thrusters on the new Russian Nauka science module, which in July accidentally fired and turned the entire space station.) The station’s thrusters and the Progress spacecraft are also sometimes needed to help control the space station’s attitude . Normally, NASA takes care of that with the use of so-called Control Moment Gyros, spinning wheel devices that use no propellant and use momentum to control the station’s position. However, those gyroscopes can become saturated over time, Hale said, and the Russian thrusters are used to help with adjustments when the gyroscopes are limited.
Without Russia’s capabilities, this would all become much more complicated and would require a new solution. In response to Rogozin’s tweets, some online commentators questioned whether American cargo space capsules, such as SpaceX’s Dragon or Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus, could be used to boost the station like the Progress ships do. In fact, there is now a Cygnus in the station, and in April it will test a new orbit-boosting capability for the space station. But as of now, neither the Dragon nor the Cygnus are meant to be a long-term solution.
While the thought of the ISS falling to Earth may seem tragic, someday it will have to happen. The station cannot stay in space forever. And while the Biden administration wants to extend the life of the station to 2030, plans are already underway for how the station will eventually be destroyed. This means that the station is introduced into the Earth’s atmosphere in a controlled manner, over an area that is not populated. Because the ISS is such a massive structure, parts of it are likely to survive the heated descent through Earth’s atmosphere, and NASA wants to ensure the safety of people on the ground.
However, the current tentative plan to take the space station out of orbit also relies on Russia. NASA outlined a concept in January involving docking three Russian Progress ships to the ISS and using the thrusters on those vehicles to safely launch the station into the atmosphere. Without Russia’s cooperation, that plan will have to change, although NASA noted that the Cygnus could be involved in some way.
“If the Russians pulled the plug and went home and left us there to our own devices, we’d put together an emergency program to try and get the station out of orbit with our own systems,” Hale says. “And I’m not sure exactly what that would take.”
For now, the easiest and safest way forward is the continued collaboration between NASA and Roscosmos to both keep the station running and then bring it down safely. But the situation is particularly precarious, especially since Biden said there is a “complete rift” in US-Russia relations. So far, that rift has not fully extended to the countries’ partnership in the civil space, but Rogozin’s comments don’t offer much comfort. In a recent tweet, Rogozin hinted that more updates would be forthcoming. “In the meantime, we will continue to analyze the new US sanctions to detail our response,” He wrote†