Could Russia split the ISS? | Science | News


The space station was launched into Earth orbit nearly a quarter of a century ago from Kazakhstan via a platform leased from Russia. Subsequent components joined it from other platforms at the site and in the United States, ultimately making the complete station a joint venture between two nations that until a few years earlier had been locked in the cold War. Now that Putin is threatening to completely cut ties with the United States, he wondered whether or not that would help US officials keep the station operational.

Could Russia split the ISS?

The complete ISS has two constituent parts, one operated by the United States called the United States Orbital Segment (USOS) and the other under Russian command known as the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS).

Russia fully controls its segment, while the United States shares operations with other countries like the United Kingdom.

The Russian part is essential to maintaining the station’s functionality, according to David Kuan-Wei Chen, executive director and lecturer at McGill University’s Air and Space Law Research Center.

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He told that the Russian segment exists to provide “propulsion and altitude control” for the station.

These mechanisms, known as “station keeping”, keep it locked in orbit.

Without them and Russian cooperation, Mr Chen warned that the ISS “could drift and be pulled towards Earth by gravity”.

Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin has warned that sanctions have hampered his country’s operational capabilities, which could spell disaster for his section.

Mr. Chen explained that all people cooperating at the station operate under legal agreements.

Specifically, they must comply with the parameters of the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement (ISS IGA).

If Russian officials wanted to, they could opt out of the deal and stop operating on board.

But it would take time for them to achieve this goal.


Mr Chen said: “As with any international agreement, a country can withdraw at any time.

“But the ISS makes it clear that to withdraw, any state must provide ‘at least one year’s written notice’ (Article 28).

“So even if Russia were to pull out now, in response to Western sanctions being imposed on Russia, there is a period of one year until that pullout takes effect.

“Until then, Russia should still continue to meet its obligations.

Although the law prevents the country from withdrawing without notice, Russia has not shown much respect for international law lately.

Considering this, Chen said it would cause a big blowback for a country that is already suffering financially and it would not necessarily affect the obligations of other nations.

He said: “It would seriously damage trust and the prospects for Russian cooperation in the future.

“Technically any country, including the UK, can opt out (because UK cooperation under ESA is unaffected by Brexit), and it wouldn’t affect the rights and obligations of other existing partners of the ISS IGA.”


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