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Russian space program chief says US sanctions could ‘destroy’ International Space Station partnership

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Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin speaks virtually during the 71st International Astronautical Congress on October 12, 2020.

Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin speaks virtually during the 71st International Astronautical Congress on October 12, 2020. (Image credit: International Astronautical Federation/Youtube )

The head of the Russian space agency warned on Thursday (February 24th) that new sanctions imposed on his country could have disastrous consequences for the International Space Station program.

“Do you want to destroy our cooperation on the ISS?” read one of tweet by Roscosmos Director General, Dimitry Rogozin, which was translated by Rob Mitchell for Ars Technica’s Space Editor, Eric Berger, who shared Mitchell’s translation on Twitter. Russia and the United States are the main partners of the ISS program, which also includes Canada, Japan and several European countries.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday in a series of military attacks. The action drew international condemnation as well as new economic sanctions, which US President Joe Biden said would downgrade Russia’s space program. NASA, however, told Space.com later yesterday that civil cooperation between the United States and Russia in space would continue, particularly regarding the ISS.

But Rogozin took a much different tone, suggesting the new sanctions could potentially cause the ISS to crash into Earth out of control. (The Russian segment of the ISS is responsible for guidance, navigation and control of the entire complex, according to the European Space Agency. And the Russian Progress cargo ship provides periodic orbit boosts to the ISS, to make sure it doesn’t sink too low in Earth’s atmosphere.)

Related: What does the invasion of Ukraine mean for the US-Russian partnership in space?

Rogozin’s tweets accused the United States of already “limiting exchanges” between Russian cosmonauts and their international counterparts, and said further activity could irrevocably break the ISS agreement.

Highlighting Russia’s checks and balances on the ISS, Rogozin said Biden was “out of the loop” and unaware that it is thanks to Russian systems that the space station can dodge “dangerous conjunctions with space junk.” .

Rogozin said the space junk came from “talented businessmen” in the United States. He didn’t name any names, but it’s likely a reference to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, whose company is building a massive satellite internet constellation called Starlink. (Rogozin apparently has complicated feelings about Musk; he once invited the billionaire entrepreneur for tea.)

SpaceX has already launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites and could eventually deliver around 40,000 craft into orbit.

Rogozin, however, did not mention a November incident in which a Russian anti-satellite test generated a cloud of orbital debris that threatened the ISS crew, forcing them to shelter in place. This test has drawn criticism from space debris observers over the risk posed to the station and its crew, which includes Russian cosmonauts.

Rogozin also pointed out that the ISS would naturally deorbit without periodic reboosts thanks to Progress cargo ships.

The space station’s orbit, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) high, causes it to collide with some particles in Earth’s atmosphere, slowly dragging the complex down over time. Just days ago, however, a Cygnus spacecraft built by aerospace company Northrop Grumman arrived at the ISS with a mandate to perform the program’s first operational relaunch, which could eventually transfer that capability to American vehicles as well. .

Nonetheless, Rogozin raised the specter of the space station’s premature failure, pointing out that its orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees does not take the complex over Russia. (The country conducts its launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which lies below the path of the ISS.)

“If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an unguided deorbit to impact the territory of the United States or Europe?” Rogozin wrote. “There is also the risk of impact from building 500 tonnes in India or China.”

Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (left) drops a container (floating lower right) after installing the docking target he once held on Russia's Prichal Multiport Docking Module.  Shkaplerov and Pytor Dubrov prepared Prichal for a future spacecraft during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Wednesday, January 19, 2022.

Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov (left) drops a container (floating lower right) after installing the docking target he once held on Russia’s Prichal Multiport Docking Module. Shkaplerov and Pytor Dubrov prepared Prichal for a future spacecraft during a spacewalk outside the International Space Station on Wednesday, January 19, 2022. (Image credit: NASA TV)

The swaggering Rogozin is well known in the space community for a 2014 threat, during a different geopolitical spat also involving Ukraine, in which he suggested that American astronauts should travel to space by trampoline instead of using the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. (At the time, Russia was the sole provider of crewed travel to the space station; NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in 2011, and American commercial crew vehicles such as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule were still in development.)

His comments on Thursday were equally colorful. For example, Rogozin suggested that people planning sanctions might “suffer from Alzheimer’s disease,” that policymakers are unaware that Russian rockets are “the most reliable in the world,” and that the United States seeks to “block our access to radiation-hardened microelectronics designed for use in space.”

Nor is it the first time that Rogozin has spoken of sanctions in recent years. The trampoline comment was made in response to the announcement of new penalties, for example. And in 2021, the US had planned a different set of restrictions due to what US officials described as Russian-led cyberattacks and election interference – a claim Russia denied at the time, according to the media. At the time, Rogozin threatened to pull Russia off the ISS by 2025 unless sanctions were lifted.

Rogozin’s latest comments, however, came just months after Russia incorporated a major expansion of the ISS. The long-awaited Nauka science module launched to the ISS in July, also causing a spacecraft emergency due to an unplanned thruster launch that space station partners quickly resolved. And in November, the Prichal docking module arrived at the ISS without incident, increasing the number of docking ports on the Russian side.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.