July 29-Russia has just announced its intention to withdraw from the International Space Station program after 2024. Although Russia has not set a specific time, this coincides with the country’s plans to prepare its own orbital outpost.
Pictures and information released by the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) show that the country plans to build the Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS), whose first stage of assembly is scheduled to begin in 2028 and includes the launch of the core module, the use of a new supply spacecraft and a completely new launch vehicle. The second phase, which is expected to begin in 2030, will focus on adding two larger modules.
However, the design of ROSS has not yet been finalized. For example, it could be placed in a 51.6-degree orbit (similar to the one in which the ISS is located) or in a 97-degree orbit close to the poles. Roscosmos sees the withdrawal from the ISS project as a good opportunity to turn its attention to building a new space station.
“We need to decide what we want to do in the future and have already started preparing for a new manned program,” said Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the Russian segment of the ISS and chief designer of RSC Energia, the prime contractor for the Russian manned space program.
Solovyov discussed the aging of the International Space Station. He said maintenance has become a big problem for the Russian segment of the ISS. In some cases, the modules have been in use for nearly 25 years, despite a design life of 15 years.
Solovyov revealed, “Recently, there has been a tendency for the cosmonauts to spend more time on maintenance and repair of on-board systems, which drains their resources and energy. Cosmonauts have less and less time to conduct scientific experiments.”
In addition, Russia has shown no interest in joining the ranks of other ISS partners in the NASA-led Return to the Moon program (Project Artemis), which aims to return humans to the lunar surface around 2025. In fact, Solovyov’s comments suggest that Russia may not go to the moon first.
According to Solovyov: “It is clear that before sending cosmonauts to the moon, we must decide whether we need to take such serious and expensive actions (to assemble a new space station).”
Solovyov said the new Russian space station will also represent a different “philosophy” of human spaceflight. He claimed that Russia’s scientific investment in the ISS and the previous Mir space station had not paid off in a big way. “It is well known that for various reasons our space experiments on the ISS did not go very well, and the results on Mir were not very good,” he said in the interview.
Solovyov said the lack of funding for operations and the stationary location of the ISS “does not always facilitate the conduct of certain experiments that observe Earth and space. For example, certain high-energy experiments in materials science cannot be performed because of the lack of available energy resources.”
How Russia’s new space station will overcome these problems is unclear, but the latest developments suggest that Roscosmos wants humans to make only occasional short trips to the new space station. Solovyov explained, “The cost of providing water, food, clothing and oxygen for cosmonauts is very high. In addition, flying partially beyond the Earth’s magnetosphere increases the radiation dose to the astronauts, which somehow reduces the allowed flight time.”
The cosmonauts will likely stay for several months each year after ROSS is built to help Russian scientists conduct experiments that Solovyov said include cosmic ray physics, space technology and space materials science (such as nanotechnology). They may also test robots and observe the aurora borealis.
Looking ahead, Solovyov believes ROSS could be used as a staging area to help cosmonauts prepare for trips to the moon or Mars, but he did not suggest a timeline for those deep space trips.