Russia will withdraw from the International Space Station in 2025, the head of its space programme said on Wednesday, in a move that would sever one of the most prominent and long-lasting areas of co-operation between Moscow and Washington.
The US and Russia jointly launched the ISS in 1998 in what was seen as a major step to rebuild ties between the cold war adversaries that had spent more than four decades competing with each other for extraterrestrial supremacy.
The decision to pull out of the ISS, which orbits 420km above the earth, may also imperil co-operation between Russia and the European Space Agency. Since Russia and the US launched the original segments of the ISS, the ESA and space agencies of Japan and Canada have provided modules that have enlarged the station and astronauts to man it.
While their collaboration has survived rapidly souring terrestrial relations between Russia and the west over the past decade, recent years have seen a number of clashes with the US over their competing space activities. Russia’s decision to abandon the ISS within four years also comes as Moscow looks instead to China as a partner for its future space ambitions.
Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said abandoning its section of the ISS would allow Moscow to launch its own space station by 2030.
“We are beginning negotiations with our Nasa partners, we are formalising them now,” Rogozin told reporters. “It does not mean that the station will be scrapped and dumped into the ocean immediately after 2025. We will simply hand over the responsibility for our segment to the partners.”
That statement comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and western capitals. Last week the US imposed a raft of new sanctions against Russia for alleged election meddling and cyber attacks, while European powers have condemned Moscow for the jailing of opposition activist Alexei Navalny and Russia’s large military build-up close to the border with Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, in a speech last week to mark the 60th anniversary of the first-ever human space flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, called for Russia to “properly maintain its status as one of the leading space . . . powers”.
Rogozin said on Wednesday that Roscosmos was awaiting Putin’s nod to begin work on a Russia-only space station.
“If we succeed in orbiting it in 2030, consistent with our plans, that would be a colossal breakthrough,” he said, in remarks published by state news agencies.
News of the intended withdrawal from the ISS comes after Russia signed a memorandum with China to jointly build a base on or orbiting the moon. Russia had previously rebuffed an offer from the US for Roscosmos to join a Nasa-led project to build a similar lunar base.