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Through the cracks of the International Space Station we see a future in which China and private investment are the protagonists of space exploration

The International Space Station (ISS) is cracking. Just a week ago we were struck by the news that Russian astronauts had found several superficial cracks in the Zarya module, which is the oldest of the facilities.

The worrying thing is that it is not the first time that it happens, and, unfortunately, as confirmed by Vladimir Solovyov, the chief engineer of the Russian space agency, the expectation is that during the next few years new cracks keep appearing in older sections of the ISS.

NASA and Roscosmos, which is the name by which the Russian space agency is known, agreed in early 2015 share leadership of the space station until 2024, but the signs of degradation that the facilities have shown in recent years cast serious doubts about the future of the ISS beyond that date.

Currently, in addition, it is not clear that the United States and Russia will continue to jointly lead this project once the operational life they have agreed to has elapsed. And meanwhile China has reached a cruising speed when it comes to space exploration that puts it out of reach of any other superpower.

Here’s what we know about NASA and Roscosmos’ plans

Adding to the reasonable doubts that the degradation of the ISS raises about its future is the permanent uncertainty that hangs over relations between the United States and Russia. The conflict between the two nations in the middle of the last decade reminds us that any unexpected tension between them can cause a lurch able to terminate your collaboration in these facilities.

In 2014 Dmitry Rogozin, then Russia’s Minister of Defense and Space Industry, announced that his country would reject the proposal to extend the operational life of the ISS. beyond 2020 in response to the sanction imposed by the United States due to Russia’s accession of the Crimean peninsula.

Russia plans to dedicate its resources to the construction of ROSS (‘Russian Orbital Service Station’), a new modular space station whose commissioning will start in 2025

Fortunately, that conflict subsided and both countries agreed to continue managing the space facilities together until 2024, which puts us where we are now. What will happen in three years? Nothing is certain, but the latest statements by the Russian executive reflect that probably will leave the project with the purpose of dedicating its resources to the construction of ROSS (Russian Orbital Service Station), a new modular space station whose commissioning will start in 2025.

Russia had initially announced its intention to reuse the module in its construction Russian Orbital Segment that it contributed to the ISS, but has finally confirmed that its future space station it will be brand new.

This strategy leaves in the lurch the agreement that NASA and Roscosmos reached on March 28, 2015, and in which they proposed to face together the construction of a new space station when the current ISS reaches the end of its operational life. It is clear that a lot has happened since then, and Russia’s position now is to have its own space station in the medium term.

Given the current political and economic situation, it seems unlikely that this nation will change its mind and decide to resume your collaboration in space exploration with the United States. At least as intense as it has been for the past two decades.

It is evident that Russia’s role in the ISS is very important, but that of the United States is even more so because its participation in the economic support of the facilities is the highest. And, in addition, it is by far.

NASA has publicly stated its intention to extend the operational life of the ISS until 2030

NASA has publicly stated its intention to extend the operational life of the ISS until 2030, and this plan was finally approved by the US Government at the end of 2018. The problem is that, of course, the degradation that the oldest modules of the facilities are suffering can prevent them from continuing to be used throughout this decade.

Predictably, NASA has not stood still watching Roscosmos planning the construction of its own space station. Almost a decade ago the US Space Agency began work on the design of a new space station to replace the ISS when the latter ended its operational life.

Initially both Roscosmos and the other space agencies who collaborate with her on the ISS were going to participate in the project, but it is currently being developed, in addition to by the US agency, by ESA (the European Space Agency), JAXA (the Japanese Agency for Aerospace Exploration) and CSA (the European Space Agency). Canadian Space).

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Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), which is the name of the next space station whose management will be led by NASA, will be significantly smaller than the ISS, and, furthermore, it will not orbit around the Earth; will operate in lunar orbit. Scientific experiments will be carried out in its facilities, as in the ISS, but it also aspires to be an indispensable platform that will undoubtedly be involved in the next missions to the Moon and Mars.

The agencies involved in its construction have planned to put the first module of the facilities into orbit. in the middle of this decade, so it is possible that LOP-G and the ISS coexist in space for some time.

China is developing its space technology with breakneck speed

This superpower already has your own space station in orbit. On April 29, it launched the Tianhe module, which is the central component of the facilities, and just a few weeks later, at the end of last May, it docked the second module of its space station in a clear example of its overwhelming capacity. scientific, technical and economic.

Earlier this year, China announced that it plans to build a lunar-orbiting space station in close cooperation with Russia.

But this is not all. At the beginning of last July two of the three astronauts who still remain on the Chinese space station carried out their first spacewalk in a milestone that adds to the long list of achievements that this nation has achieved in space exploration in recent years.

In a relatively short time, China has gone from being a country to which no power with interests in space paid attention to consolidating itself as the leading actor whom everyone respects. And it is offering us very clear signs that its ambition in this area has not yet reached its ceiling.

In fact, earlier this year it announced that it plans to build in close cooperation with Russia a space station in lunar orbit that will compete face to face with the LOP-G station that will be managed by NASA, ESA, JAXA and CSA. But this is not all. China’s latest pirouette has led this country to consider the construction of a gigantic modular space station of several kilometers, although at the moment this project is nothing more than an initiative that has yet to demonstrate its practical viability.

Tianhe
Tianhe

This photograph of the central Tianhe module was taken during rigorous validation by Chinese scientists before placing it into orbit on April 29.

We still have to pay attention to one more ingredient in the recipe that space exploration will have in the coming years: private investment. The role that companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin, among others, already have, and presumably will maintain, promises to be crucial to make the transport of both equipment and personnel to future space stations viable. At least to the facilities managed by NASA and the agencies that collaborate with it.

The resources these companies have are gigantic, so probably also will assume a leading role in the next missions to the Moon and Mars that NASA will lead, and in which, again, the space agencies with which it will collaborate in the LOP-G station are expected to participate.

Space exploration is no longer something only available to Americans and Russians. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that in the future scientific collaboration in this and other areas will be able to maintain what it has always done: create ties between countries and excuse their differences.

Imágenes | NASA/Boeing | China News Network