Can India Partner Russia In Its Space Station Project As Roscosmos Mulls Withdrawing From The ISS?

As Russia plans to pull out of the US-dominated International Space Station (ISS) amid rising tensions with Western nations, will it open up opportunities for India?   

According to BBC, Russia is likely to withdraw from the International Space Station after its agreement with the international partners ends in 2024. Simultaneously, it plans to build a floating laboratory that will be launched into Earth’s orbit by 2030.

Moscow has also announced cooperation with China on International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

In the aftermath of the Cold War, it was hoped that the days of great power rivalries were over and humanity can come together for common goals.

For this purpose, the ISS was launched in 1998 and has five participatory space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).

Since the beginning, Russia has been a crucial member of the ISS. It provided modular space station construction technology in the initial phase. Until Elon Mask’s SpaceX system, Russia’s Soyuz passenger vehicle served as the only way to transport astronauts to the space station.

In what seems to be a re-run of Cold-War rivalry, relations between Moscow and Washington have soured over various issues, including the recent Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border. The western nations have also tried to counter Moscow’s treatment of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.   

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov recently said, “We can’t risk the lives [of our cosmonauts]. The situation that today is connected to the structure and the metal getting old, it can lead to irreversible consequences – to catastrophe. We mustn’t let that happen,” was quoting as telling state TV.

He also said Russia would give its international partners “fair warning of our departure from the ISS in 2025”.

Russian Space Station

Additionally, the new Russian space station that Roscosmos plans to build will be able to host space crews starting from 2026, Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director of the Russian segment on the International Space Station said.

“I think if a scientific energy module will be launched in 2026, then it will be possible to organize a manned expedition in 2026,” Solovyov said.

Moreover, the general designer of the first module of the station, Aleksey Bideev, told reporters that the second module will be launched “probably in 2028”. According to Roscosmos, the first module of Russia’s new space station — the Science Power Module, originally intended for the ISS — will be ready for launch in 2025.

Russia-China Cooperation

Russia’s announcement might have something to do with the joint China-Russia declaration last week in which both the nations pledged mutual cooperation in the creation of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS).

The ILRS has been conceived as a scientific experiment base on the lunar surface and orbit aimed at carrying out multi-disciplinary and multi-objective scientific research activities, including lunar exploration and observation.

While the joint declaration mentioned that the station is open to all international partners for collaboration, it is likely that China and Russia hope to create an alternative to the West-dominated ISS.

Last month, a lead space systems engineer at Roscosmos had said that a new moon base would need to be modeled on ISS. Thus, there are chances of ILRS resembling the ISS but suited to the lunar atmosphere.

There has always been room for India to participate in the International Space Station. In 2010, European Space Agency’s Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain has suggested including China, India, and South Korea as new participants.

China came to be subsequently barred from the ISS through a 2011 US Congressional law based on “national security” concerns but India doesn’t face such barriers.

India’s Own Space Station

India, however, doesn’t seem to be interested in joining the ISS. In June 2019, Indian Space Research Organisation  (ISRO) chief K. Sivan announced India’s plan to launch its own space station as an extension of its Gaganyaan or human spaceflight program.

He stated that while India won’t join ISS, it is open to collaborations on other fronts — for instance, France is partnering with India on its Venus mission.

At the same time, it is unlikely that India would join ILRS involving China and Russia due to the existing border dispute with the Asian country.

Sivan said the Indian space station is envisioned to weigh 20 tons and serve as a facility where astronauts can stay for 15-20 days, and it would be placed in an orbit 400 km above the earth. The time frame for launch is 5-7 years after Gaganyaan, he added.

Earlier, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said that Russia is ready to involve other countries in the project to create a new space station, but is ready to finance it on its own.

“We will definitely take them, but we will cope [with financing] on our own,” Borisov told the Rossiya 1 broadcaster, answering whether Russia was ready to take other countries into the project.

The new Russian space station will become a transit hub on the way to the moon, Borisov said. “This is one of the new functions, and it is being considered very seriously. The station is like a kind of transit hub, intermediate, in particular, for flights and the exploration of the Moon,” he said.

Netizens have often wondered since China is developing its own space station – Tiangong which could be completed by the end of 2022, can India join Russia in the space exploration project and be at par with other global space agencies?