Russia's Pirs ISS module scheduled to fall away, much like Moscow's interest in the space station

Troubled Nauka might actually make it after four orbit corrections – since we left work Friday


Russia's space agency spent the weekend trying to get one module to the International Space Station and deciding to ditch another.

The module Moscow wants is Nauka, which launched last week after decades of delays caused by problems with its propulsion systems, tank contamination, and component expiration.

Nauka quickly found more trouble as its propulsion systems and docking sensors proved problematic.

Roscosmos Mission Control Center made two course corrections Friday and another two on Saturday in hopes they get the module to the ISS. Assuming all went to plan, further burns will take place on 27 July.

Regardless, Nauka seems to be on its way. It was even spotted by a space photographer from his backyard.

The module Moscow doesn't want is Pirs, which was bolted to the ISS in 2001 but has become a tad decrepit since.

In a canned statement, Roscosmos said the decision to delay the Pirs module decommissioning was based on "telemetry data and the need to build optimal orbit conditions". Barring any other changes, the physical separation should take place on Monday 26 July with some parts of the structure falling into the Pacific Ocean at 14:51pm UTC.

The cosmonauts onboard the ISS closed the Pirs module's transfer hatches and checked the pressure intensity over the weekend in preparation. The module is docked to the Earth-side port of the ISS, waiting to be the first permanent ISS module to be decommissioned and mostly burn up on re-entry.

The problems with Nauka echoe Russia's waning commitment to current international space collaborations. In March, Russia and China signed a vague agreement to share knowledge and tools for construction of their own International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) on the Moon's south pole.

In April, Roscosmos said it wanted to launch its own orbiting science lab by 2030 after entering talks with NASA to pull out of the ISS as early as 2025. The date is entirely plausible as the Kremlin's agreement to be involved with the ISS expires in 2024.

In June, Russia's space chief threatened to withdraw from the ISS if the US did not lift sanctions. Withdrawal would end 45 years of Russian/US space collaboration.

The station is even divided into two sections: one Russian, one American. The situation seems to be headed for what some may consider a very disappointing divorce, leaving us wondering what lingering obligations the parties might have to their joint project. Not to mention what is to become of the partnership should Nauka not complete its journey.

Jack Wright Nelson, a space law researcher from the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, told The Register:

Before Nauka launched, questions were being asked about the durability of Russia's commitment to the ISS. Launching the module placated many. But if it fails to dock, those questions will just come straight back.

As for Russia's legal obligations to the ISS, Nelson explained that there aren't many. The key document is a 1998 treaty between ISS partners, supplemented by various memoranda of understanding and implementing arrangements.

"This system provides that each partner retains ownership and control of their modules, but also divides up utilization rights based on their contributions to the ISS," said Nelson. He added that contributions can be financial, hardware, or services like launch and resupply – the value of which can be subjective and difficult to calculate. Furthermore, within the ISS there is a strong bartering culture, where partners trade utilisation rights and services among themselves.

Nelson concluded: "A successful docking of Nauka will give Roscosmos a valuable orbital asset and presumably greater influence and bargaining power within the complex politics of the ISS." ®

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