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The Functioning of the ISS After Sanctions


Even though the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia including a ban on transfer of technology, the scheduled missions for a transfer of crew on the ISS between the two countries seem to be unaffected.


GS-III Science and Technology: (Space Technology, Developments in Space technology)

Dimension of the Article:
  1. What is a Space Station?
  2. International Space Station (ISS)
  3. What is Russia’s role in maintaining the ISS?
  4. Why does the orbit of the ISS need to be corrected?

What is a Space Station?

  • A Space station is an artificial structure placed in orbit, having the pressurized enclosure, power, supplies, and environmental systems necessary to support human habitation for extended periods.
  • In simple words: a space station, also called an orbital station, is a large spacecraft or man-made station in space which can act as a home where astronauts live and/or receive several spacecrafts from the Earth and/or act as a kind of science lab, etc.
  • Depending on its configuration, a space station can serve as a base for a variety of activities.
    • These include observations of the Sun and other astronomical objects, study of Earth’s resources and environment, military reconnaissance, and long-term investigations of the behaviour of materials and biological systems—including human physiology and biochemistry—in a state of weightlessness, or microgravity.
How are space stations set up and how do they work?

Small space stations are launched fully assembled, but larger stations are sent up in modules and assembled in orbit. To make the most efficient use of its carrier vehicle’s capacity, a space station is launched vacant, and its crew members—and sometimes additional equipment—follow in separate vehicles. A space station’s operation, therefore, requires a transportation system to ferry crews and hardware and to replenish the propellant, air, water, food, and such other items as are consumed during routine operations. Space stations use large panels of solar cells and banks of storage batteries as their source of electrical power. They also employ geostationary relay satellites for continuous communication with mission controllers on the ground and satellite-based positioning systems for navigation.

How many Space Stations have we launched?
  • Since 1971, more than 10 space stations have been launched into a low orbit around Earth and have been occupied for varying lengths of time.
  • Important Space stations in chronological order are Salyut 1, Skylab, Salyuts 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, Mir, the International Space Station, and Tiangong 1 and 2.

International Space Station (ISS)

  • The International Space Station (ISS) is a modular space station (habitable artificial satellite) in low Earth orbit.
  • The ISS program is a multi-national collaborative project between five participating space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).
  • The ownership and use of the space station is established by intergovernmental treaties and agreements.
  • The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which scientific experiments are conducted in astrobiology, astronomy, meteorology, physics, and other fields.
  • It is the largest artificial object in space and the largest satellite in low Earth orbit, regularly visible to the naked eye from Earth’s surface.
  • The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, following the Soviet and later Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations as well as Skylab from the US.
Reuters report
  • According to a Reuters report, this was followed by a statement from the head of the Russian Space Agency — Roscosmos —  where he demanded the lift of the sanctions, some of which predate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • He said that the sanctions could disrupt the functioning of the Russian spacecraft that serviced the International Space Station.
  • This could lead to the Russian segment of the ISS, which helps in correcting the orbit of the ISS being affected. He said that this meant the ISS could fall into the sea or on the land.
  • He further said that the Russian segment ensures that the space station’s orbit is corrected to keep it away from space debris, roughly 11 times a year.
  • He pointed out, publishing a map, that the ISS would likely crash down on some country, but most probably not Russia itself.

What is Russia’s role in maintaining the ISS?

  • The ISS is built with the co-operation of scientists from five international space agencies — NASA of the U.S., Roscosmos of Russia, JAXA of Japan, Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
  • Each agency has a role to play and a share in the upkeep of the ISS.
  • Both in terms of expense and effort, it is not a feat that a single country can support.
  • Russia’s part in the collaboration is the module responsible for making course corrections to the orbit of the ISS.
  • They also ferry astronauts to the ISS from the Earth and back.
  • Until SpaceX’s dragon spacecraft came into the picture the Russian spacecrafts were the only way of reaching the ISS and returning.

Why does the orbit of the ISS need to be corrected?

  • Due to its enormous weight and the ensuing drag, the ISS tends to sink from its orbit at a height of about 250 miles above the Earth.
  • It has to be pushed up to its original line of motion every now and then.
  • Approximately once a month this effort has to be made. It is not necessarily a regular operation, and may be missed once and compensated for later.
  • The other reason for altering the path of the ISS is to avoid its collision with space debris, which can damage the station.
  • These manoeuvres need to be done as and when the debris is encountered.


  • Manoeuvering the ISS is expensive.
  • In a year, 7-8 tonnes of fuel may need to be spent, with each manoeuvre costing nearly a tonne of fuel.
  • If a manoeuvre is put off for later, the ISS may sink a little more and the delayed operation would cost more as a larger correction needs to be made.
If Russia should back out of the effort, are there spacecrafts that can substitute?
  • There are right now two possibilities.
  • SpaceX’s dragon module and Boeing’s Starliner can dock with the ISS.
  • Starliner also has the capacity to carry, say, ten tonnes of fuel.
What is the likelihood of Russia backing out?
  • Though there have been previous occasions when conflicts have risen between Russia and the U.S., the operation of the ISS has not been interrupted.
  • There are two missions planned for March 18, and one astronaut is already there on site.
  • The mission means to take up two Russians and an American astronaut, and the preparatory work is in progress.
  • On March 30, it is planned that the mission will return an American astronaut to Earth from the ISS.
  • These seem to be going on as per plan.
Is it true that Russia does not have the risk of the ISS crashing down on their country?
  • The orbit of the ISS does not fly over the Russian territory mostly.
  • Places that are closer to the equator run a greater risk of it falling in their domain.
  • The orbit is at about 50 degrees and so most probably, the ISS will fall in that level.
  • But this is only a probability, as it can move or disintegrate.
  • But in case of this eventuality, people in the ISS will be brought back, modules can be detached thereby making it much smaller which will ensure that it disintegrates before touching the earth.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023