May 23, 2009

Russia To Keep Space Station Components In Orbit

Russia is making preparations to separate its components of the International Space Station (ISS) and fly them away when the rest of the station de-orbits.

 A BBC News report cited Russian officials who said they plan to keep their ISS modules in orbit for another ten years.

Although ISS partner nations are hopeful they will be able to extend funding for the project beyond the current deadline of 2015, observers agree that most of the ISS will have to be cancelled by 2020.

Russia's plans call for the remaining Russian modules to form the core of a new orbital outpost, which would serve as a harbor and assembly shop for missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

RKK Energia, Russia's primary ISS contractor, has already started developing a customized node module for the Russian segment, which will serve as the foundation of the future station.

A spherical-shaped compartment with docking ports on six sides would allow the new outpost to remain in space indefinitely, with individual components being replaced as needed.  The current ISS design makes replacement of some of its critical modules virtually impossible.

Russian engineers are confident that even after twenty years in orbit, their modules will be able to serve as the basis of a new space station.

"We flew on Mir for 15 years and accumulated colossal experience in extending the service life (of such a vehicle)," a senior Russian official at RKK Energia told BBC News.

"I don't see any problems, with the exception of penetration of the module's skin by a meteoroid. (The vehicle) can fly twenty or thirty years and, if we don't have a direct hit, we can replace practically every internal component. We learnt a lesson from Mir that anything that can fail in this period of time can be replaced."

However, the notion of transitioning the Russian segment of the ISS into an independent space station creates major legal, political and financial issues, Russian officials acknowledged.

"I can tell you it is technically possible to separate the Russian segment (from the ISS) and fly free, however, (in this case) there are a number of issues with the... end of the station's life," said one Russian space official during an interview with BBC News.

Because the Russian plans call for flying a key service module away along with the rest of its segments, the remaining parts of the ISS would be left without propulsion capability.  Such capacity would be needed to maintain the station's orbit or to send it back into the Earth's atmosphere over a safe area.

According to a BBC News report citing Russian sources, Russia has actively discussed their intentions with their American counterparts, but has so far failed to reach a satisfactory solution.

"Our position is that the primary integrator of the station (NASA) is responsible for a civilized end to the flight after the conclusion of the mission," a Russian official told BBC News.

"They (the Americans) said they understood the issue, but did not go beyond that."

To resolve the issue, Russian space officials are considering the European-built ATV spacecraft, whose propulsion system is strong enough to guide ISS towards a controlled destruction.

However, significant modifications would be necessary to implement the plan since the ATV can currently only dock with the Russian segment. 

Manuel Valls, head of policy and plans at the European Space Agency's (human spaceflight and exploration directorate, told BBC News that ESA had conducted preliminary studies about docking the vehicle to the American ISS segment.

But the agency's priority is on reaching a quick agreement with its ISS partners on funding for the station until at least 2020.

"If and when the ISS will be de-orbited, which is, again, highly unlikely to happen before 2020, then the right vehicle to do the job would be the ATV," Mr. Valls said.

"However, by 2020, we will also have the HTV (a Japanese cargo vehicle designed to dock with the US segment) and probably American vehicles, which could be used as well. It is more than 10 years from now, so anything can happen."

Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, first announced plans to succeed the ISS with its own space station nearly ten years ago.  However, several recent events helped bring the plan to the forefront of Russia's long-term space strategy.

In 2004, the U.S. government decided to abandon the ISS in the middle of the coming decade, choosing instead to fund lunar exploration missions. NASA currently plans to end its participation in the ISS around 2015, precisely when the latest Russian ISS modules are set to reach the launch pad.

Last year, Roscosmos and ESA fell short on reaching a deal on a co-operative initiative to develop a next-generation manned spacecraft.

The Russian government has since committed to the independent development of a new manned spacecraft, which would ultimately support missions to the Moon or to Mars.

The initial launch of the new Russian spacecraft is optimistically set for 2018.  Assuming the launch takes place by then, the craft would likely reach the launch pad before NASA ended its ISS support.

While the ISS served primarily as a platform for scientific research, Russia's future space station, known as the Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex (OPSEK), would primarily function as a support station for deep space exploration.

Behind the scenes, Russian engineers have crafted aggressive plans for orbital stations around the Earth and the Moon, and ultimately in the orbit of Mars.   The stations would be linked by re-usable tugs, shuttling between them continuously to support ongoing Solar System exploration.

After separating from the ISS, the station's 20-ton service module could ultimately be replaced by a 40-ton living quarters that would be launched by a new family of vehicles.

This module could eventually serve as a base and building site for the Martian expedition complex, which could be assembled while in Earth's orbit in the mid-2030s to transport the first humans to Mars.


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