The potential breakup of an international alliance is now brewing, and no, we’re not talking about Brexit. This one is happening above our heads.
Russia’s main contractor in human space flight just detailed its plans to separate the newest modules from the International Space Station (ISS) once the long-lived project comes to an end in the 2020s. It plans to build a new habitable base in Earth orbit called the Russian Orbital Station, or ROS. The outpost will include three modules initially, possibly joined by two more in the future.
Russian plans to split the ISS have been circulating for years. Now, for a host of political, financial, and technical reasons, this isn’t just a wild idea on paper anymore.
One more big problem for the space station is that Russian efforts to complete its segment of the ISS have been stalled for years, first by poor quality control and then by the financial crisis. This month, reports surfaced that the launch of the Multi-Purpose Module, or Nauka (Russian for “science”), had been pushed back by another six months to December 2017. Given the complexity of the 20-ton behemoth, one can bet there will be more delays before Nauka reaches the launch pad.
According to some media reports, the prime Russian contractor on the ISS, the new outpost would begin with the separation of the Nauka from the rest of the old station in mid-2020s. By that time, Nauka should have two even newer modules in tow. One would be the so-called Node Module, a tinker-toy-like component that could connect to six other modules, crew ships, cargo tankers, structural elements, you name it. The Node Module is already in RKK Energia’s garage and ready to go within a few months after the Nauka.
Space module ‘Nauka’ – photo credit Anatoly Zak
Next would be the new Science and Power Module (NEM) which, as it name implies, will finally give cosmonauts a state-of-the-art science lab and a pair of large solar arrays, making the Russian segment fully independent from the rest of the ISS in terms of power, communications, and other resources. The launch of NEM, currently promised as early as 2019, would set the stage for these three components to leave the ISS to form ROS.
And then Russia could add on. Someday, Russian engineers hope, they will outfit the Russian station with its own inflatable habitat and with a roomy airlock for spacewalks. Crews could be delivered to the new station onboard veteran Soyuz spacecraft or by a new-generation transport ship, which is currently in development.
photo credit: Anatoly Zak