NASA has criticized the Russian space agency for using the International Space Station (ISS) to stage propaganda photographs related to its invasion of Ukraine.
Photos show three Russian cosmonauts waving the flags of two regions in eastern Ukraine that had been captured by Russian military forces – prompting the US space agency to issue a ‘strong reprimand’.
The stunt was described as “fundamentally incompatible with the station’s primary function among the 15 international participating nations to advance science and develop technology for peaceful purposes” by NASA.
Despite the growing ground conflict between Washington and Moscow, cooperation in low Earth orbit has largely continued with few challenges from the United States to its Russian partners – although the director general of Roscosmos has repeatedly threatened to withdraw cooperation.
Roscosmos on Monday released the photographs of cosmonauts waving the flags of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic which are not recognized by the international community.
There are fears that the diplomatic fallout from the war in Ukraine could undermine the international cooperation needed to keep the ISS in orbit and the safety of astronauts.
NASA before told Sky News that despite the heated exchanges and the deterioration of relations on Earth, cooperation between Russia and the United States on the ISS will continue.
“There are really no tensions in the team,” said Joel Montalbano, program manager for the ISS.
His comments followed a tongue-in-cheek video posted on social media by Russian government-controlled RIA Novosti showing NASA astronaut Mark T Vande Hei abandoned on the space station by cosmonauts.
Concerns grew when the video was retweeted by the head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin.
It was just one of many barbed tweets sent by the Russian space chief to his American and European colleagues since the imposition of sanctions on Russia.
The end of the ISS
Regardless of the outcome of the invasion of Ukraine and US-Russian relations, the long-term future of the ISS is likely limited.
NASA has released plans that could see the 444,615kg structure removed from orbit in January 2031 and crashed in a “starship graveyard” in the most remote place on Earth.
The commercial crew program is part of NASA’s effort to help the private sector gain a foothold in space, eventually replacing the orbital laboratory with a number of commercial space stations.
In the perfect scenario, the space station’s orbiting altitude will be slowly lowered from its current altitude of 408 km (253 miles).
As the ISS’s altitude drops, it will encounter an increasingly dense atmosphere, adding more drag and pulling it even lower.
The space station will still travel so fast that it will begin to heat up and spurt debris onto a path behind it.
The plan to prevent this debris from harming people or property is to crash the ISS into an uninhabited area of the South Pacific Ocean near Point Nemo.
Point Nemo has been called a spaceship graveyard because – as the farthest point on Earth from any land – it is where decommissioned spacecraft are usually targeted when returning to Earth.