Why are Russia and the West still working together in space? science | In-depth reports on science and technology | DW

The war in Ukraine halted most of Russia’s political, scientific, and academic cooperation with the West.

But one project continues to move forward despite the conflict: Last week, Anna Kekina became the first Russian cosmonaut to launch an American rocket in 20 years — and the only astronaut ever to board a SpaceX.

Kekina is heading to the International Space Station (ISS), where she will live for more than four months as a member of the SpaceX Crew-5 mission. Its presence on board the mission was announced in July as a result of a crew swap that put the NASA astronaut on a Russian flight to the International Space Station.

Anna Kekina at a press conference on the ground simulating the SIRIUS-17 lunar mission, Moscow

Anna Kekina is the first Russian cosmonaut to launch a US rocket in 20 years

The International Space Station is a 25-year-old space cooperation between the United States, Russia, Canada, the European Union and Japan, which has long been seen as a symbol of successful relations in the post-Cold War era. It is one of the few projects that Russia and the West have continued to work on together since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

space environment lab

The International Space Station is the largest space station in low Earth orbit and represents the longest human presence in space – more than 20 years. It is largely used as a laboratory for the space environment where thousands of experiments in astronomy, physics and microbiology have been conducted over the past two decades.

The unit itself consists of two parts: one is manufactured and operated by Russia, while the other is manufactured and operated by the United States, with the support of other partner countries.

Russia is responsible for the part of the station that keeps it in orbit.

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The International Space Station is in free fall, which creates a sense of weightlessness or “microgravity,” referring to the fact that the gravity on board is not exactly zero. Everything that has mass, like the Earth, the sun, the space station itself, and the astronauts, exerts a force of gravity.

View of Earth and spaceship.  The International Space Station orbits the Earth

Russia helps the International Space Station stay in orbit

The station is able to stay in orbit because it orbits the Earth fast enough to compensate for being in a free-fall state. It is moving at approximately 8 kilometers per second (5 miles per second) – more than 20 times the speed of a 9mm bullet.

Although this fast speed is usually enough to keep the station afloat, sometimes it loses altitude and requires extra thrust to stay 400 kilometers (250 miles) above the ground. The Russian unit provides this reinforcement.

Bill Nelson, Administrator of NASA, said in an interview Der Spiegel magazine in July.

Science aboard the International Space Station

The state of free fall is different from the state of gravity we experience on Earth. Strange things happen aboard the International Space Station – the water on astronauts’ toothbrushes forms bubbles, a sneeze can flip them back up and a candle flame appears perfectly round.

Most of the science conducted aboard the station, which orbits the Earth 16 times a day, focuses on understanding how long spaceflights affect the health of astronauts.

This knowledge is essential for designing longer crewed missions – to Mars, for example.

Through experiments aboard the International Space Station, scientists have learned that bones lose density in microgravity, and that astronauts only have to exercise for two hours a day to maintain their muscle mass.

The famous NASA Twin Study taught scientists important lessons about how space affects the length of telomeres — the ultimate tips for chromosomes that can play a role in age, immune system and gene expression.

In this joint US-Russian experiment, researchers studied identical twins, both now retired astronauts. Scott Kelly was aboard the International Space Station for 11 months with cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, while his brother Mark remained on Earth.

The latest image released by NASA shows former astronaut Scott Kelly (right), who was the commander of Expedition 45/46 during his year-long mission aboard the International Space Station, along with his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly (left).  The twin study, published by Journal Science, helps scientists better understand the effects of spaceflight on the human body by studying identical twins.  Retired astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 days in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station while retired astronaut Mark Kelly, his identical twin, remained on Earth.  The genetic similarity of the twins provided the scientists with fewer variants and an ideal control group, both of which are important for scientific research.

Former astronaut Scott Kelly (right) poses face to face with his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly (left). The two participated in a dual NASA study.

And it’s not just about the health of the astronauts. Other projects, such as the Aquamembrane water recycling experiment, can help people on Earth, too. Using “advanced osmosis” water purification technology, the astronauts were able to purify urine and turn it into drinking water. This technology is faster than the alternative currently used on Earth, called “reverse osmosis,” and could have major implications for water-scarce regions in the future.

Plan ahead

Roscosmos chief Yuri Borisov said in July that Russia plans to withdraw from the International Space Station in 2024 to launch its own space station.

But according to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, they have not received any official decision from Russia, and Sergey Krikalev, head of Roscosmos’ human space programs, said cooperation could extend beyond 2024 at a press conference before the launch of Crew-5. .

The United States pledged to continue until the end of the decade: US President Biden signed the CHIPS Act in early August, which extends NASA’s participation in the International Space Station by six years, until 2030.

Are there alternatives?

It is unclear whether the International Space Station can survive without Russia.

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft successfully delivered a much-needed stabilization boost to the station earlier this summer, which could offer an alternative. Cygnus is one of NASA’s commercial spacecraft partners with SpaceX Dragon.

But separating the Russian unit from the American one will take time and money, and no plans have been announced yet.

When it comes to the astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ship, the conflict over land came as a surprise when it erupted earlier this year, according to German European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Mauer. He spoke candidly on a German space podcast after landing on Earth in May after more than 170 days aboard the International Space Station.

Mauer said, on an hr-iNFO podcast called “WeltraumWagner.”

Edited by: Claire Roth

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