US space agency NASA and Russian space organisation Roscosmos have been working together on the International Space Station (ISS) for nearly three decades now.
As the space station is controlled by both the countries, either party leaving would spell trouble, the Verge reported.
Following the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which invoked several sanctions on the latter, the Roscosmos chief has threatened that the restrictions would destroy Russia’s partnership with NASA and lead to the demise of the ISS.
NASA relies on Russian propulsion to help control the orbiting lab’s attitude, or position and orientation in space, and periodically boost the station on its orbit around Earth, the report said.
If Russia pulls out, NASA would have to engineer a new solution to help keep the station on the right path in space, so that the vehicle does not slowly fall out of orbit and enter Earth’s atmosphere.
“If the Russians walk away, then you’ve got this massive object that’s going to come back in randomly somewhere over the Earth,” Wayne Hale, former programme manager of NASA’s Space Shuttle and a member of NASA’s Advisory Council, was quoted as saying.
On the other hand, NASA also helps to control the space station’s position in orbit, and the space agency is solely responsible for generating electricity for the entire vehicle.
“Either we’re going to stay together, or the thing is not going to work,” Hale said.
NASA, on its part, has asserted that civil cooperation between the US and Russia in space, particularly with regard to the International Space Station (ISS), will continue.
But after US President Joe Biden announced the sanctions, Dmitry Rogozin, the Director of Roscosmos, in a tweet posted in Russian (translated by Google Translate) said: “Maybe President Biden is off topic, so explain to him that the correction of the station’s orbit, its avoidance of dangerous rendezvous with space garbage, with which your talented businessmen have polluted the near-Earth orbit, is produced exclusively by the engines of the Russian Progress MS cargo ships.”
“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting and falling into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping a 500-tonne structure to India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect?”
“The ISS does not fly over Russia, so all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?” he added.
While the comments may merely be wild threats, it has raised concern over what NASA would do if the Russians abruptly pulled out of the ISS programme – a move that could be a substantial problem, the report said.
“If the Russians pull the plug and went home and left us up there to our own devices, we would put an emergency programme together to try to de-orbit the station with our own systems,” said Hale. “And I don’t know exactly what that would take the form of.”
But such a scenario would take quite a while to manifest, possibly giving NASA some time to devise an alternate solution, he noted.
“It’s not like a week, it’ll probably be several years,” Hale said.
The ISS, launched in 1998, was originally intended to operate for just 15 years. But recently NASA said that space operations on the orbiting lab can continue upto 2030.
It will be “de-orbited” in January 2031, after which it will plunge into the most remote point in the Pacific Ocean, NASA has said.