The new head of Russia’s space agency announced on Tuesday that Russia will leave the International Space Station after its current commitment expires at the end of 2024.
“The decision to leave the station after 2024 has been made,” said Yuri Borisov, who was appointed this month to lead Roscosmos, a state-controlled company in charge of the country’s space program.
The pronouncement has come during a meeting between Mr Borisov and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Mr Borisov told Mr Putin that Russia would fulfill its commitments until 2024. “I think at that time we will start training the Russian orbital station,” he said.
“It could be bluster from the Russians,” said Phil Larson, White House space adviser during the Obama administration. “It could be revisited or it could come to fruition.”
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NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Speaking from orbit at a space station research conference, Kjell Lindgren, one of NASA’s astronauts, said nothing had changed up there yet.
“This is very recent news,” he said, “and so we haven’t heard anything officially. Of course, you know, we were trained to do a mission here, and this mission is one that requires the whole crew.
It is uncertain whether the station can operate without Russian involvement after 2024. The orbiting outpost consists of two sections, one run by NASA, the other by Russia. The two are interconnected. Much of the power on the Russian side comes from NASA solar panels, while the Russians provide propulsion to periodically raise the orbit.
But with tensions rising between Washington and Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian space officials, including Dmitry Rogozin, Mr Borisov’s predecessor, had made statements in recent months that the Russia planned to leave. But they left ambiguity over when or if a final decision had been made. NASA officials, who want to extend space station operations until 2030, have expressed confidence in Russia keeping it.
For the majority, operations on the space station continued uninterrupted. In March, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth in a Russian Soyuz capsule as planned. NASA and Roscomos come struck a deal that would give Russian astronauts seats on American-built spacecraft in exchange for putting NASA astronauts into orbit on Russian Soyuz rockets.
However, NASA this month strongly criticized Russia after Roscosmos distributed photographs of the three russian astronauts on the space station holding the flags of Russian-backed separatists in two provinces of Ukraine.
Russia has plans for its own space station, but Roscosmos has been financially strapped for years. After the retirement of US space shuttles in 2011, NASA had to buy seats on Soyuz rockets, providing a steady stream of cash for the Russians. That revenue dried up after SpaceX began transporting NASA astronauts two years ago. Russia lost additional sources of income following economic sanctions that prevented European companies and other nations from launching satellites on its rockets.
“Without cooperation with the West, the Russian space program is impossible in all its parts, including the military part,” said Pavel Luzin, a Russian military and space analyst.
Russia is also seeking greater cooperation with the Chinese space program, which has launched a Sunday laboratory module to add to its space stationTiangong. But Tiangong is not in an orbit accessible from the Russian launch pads.
“The prospect of cooperating with China is a fiction,” Luzin said. “The Chinese considered Russia as a potential partner until 2012 and have since stopped. Today, Russia cannot offer China anything in terms of space.