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Tanja Masson-Zwaan on the consequences of the war in Ukraine for space travel

Around the world, many partnerships with Russia are being ended due to the war in Ukraine. What about space travel, in which the Russians also have a large stake?

Tanja Masson-Zwaan

The Russians have been very vocal this past week: they have threatened to crash the space station ISS in Europe or the US. How real is this threat? 'In the ISS partnership which is made up of fifteen countries, Russia has the task of station keeping: making sure the station keeps to the right orbit’, says Assistant Professor of Air and Space Law Tanja Masson-Zwaan in Dutch radio programme Spraakmakers. 'If they were to stop doing that, the station could lose altitude and crash. But we’ll have to wait and see if they are serious.’

'Statements like these are made all the time by the head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos and he is quite an outspoken figure. But you could see this as a violation of the treaty obligations’.

If the ISS were to actually crash, how big would the impact on Earth be? 'The ISS is about the size of a football pitch’, says Masson-Zwaan. 'The plan now is for the ISS to remain operational until 2024, and hopefully until 2030, and then to let it burn through the atmosphere in a controller manner. If you do something like that in an uncontrolled way, then you don’t know where it will crash. I don’t think you could crash it precisely on North America or Europe.  Besides, three quarters of the Earth is water.’

NASA continues to say that the cooperation related to ISS will continue. 'But the ESA and the German space agency have said that they are suspending all cooperation with Russia. In my teaching I have always said that space travel is above these kinds of geopolitical conflicts. Until now, this was true: during the Crimean annexation, for example, everything went on as usual in the space sector. But now a lot of things are being put on hold.'

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