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Russia is to deny the US use of the International Space Station beyond 2020 and will bar export of critical rocket engines to the US, in a move that has highlighted American dependence on Russian space technology.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, announced the measures in response to US sanctions against a series of Russian companies and officials over theUkraine crisis.
The twin moves against the space and satellite programmes represent one high-tech niche in which Moscow believes it has leverage over the US.
Mr Rogozin pointed out that, following the US’s retirement of its space shuttle fleet amid National Aeronautics and Space Administration cuts in 2011, the US was no longer able to send astronauts to the station on its own.
“The Russian segment of the ISS can exist independently from the US one, but the US segment cannot exist independently from the Russian one,” Mr Rogozin said.
The effective ban on exports of MK-33 and RD-180 rocket motors could be of greater significance to the US. The RD-180 powers the Atlas rocket used by the United Launch Alliance joint venture between Boeingand Lockheed Martin which puts the US’s most sensitive military satellites into orbit.
Mr Rogozin said the exports could continue if the US gave guarantees that the motors would not be used to launch military satellites. But, given ULA’s critical role in the US’s military satellite programme, such guarantees look unlikely.
“At the moment, US national security launches are heavily dependent on access to the Russian engine,” Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said.
As Moscow’s stand-off with Ukraine escalated in recent months into the worst falling-out with the west since the Cold War, both US and Russian diplomats had noted that the two powers continued to “do business” pragmatically in areas of global significance. “Space is obviously no longer part of that,” said one western diplomat.
Washington last month decided to revoke export licences for technology goods that can be used militarily by Russia and to refuse to extend new ones. Washington is also considering new restrictions on the export of high-tech equipment to develop Russia’s energy resources.
Moscow’s move against the ISS came in the form of a rejection of a US request to use the station beyond 2020. The ISS, jointly maintained by several countries, has been continuously manned by rotating missions for more than 13 years and is used for research, some of which is considered vital for further space exploration.
The move over the rocket motors comes after SpaceX, the space venture of Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, asked a federal court to bar the ULA from buying RD-180 motors. SpaceX said the purchases breached US sanctions against Mr Rogozin, who is also head of Russia’s space programme. SpaceX, which already carries out some launches of less sensitive satellites for the US government, does not use Russian engines and would like to break into launching the most sensitive satellites.
ULA said neither it nor NPO Energomash, its Russian supplier, had been made aware of any restrictions. But, if reports of the move were accurate, they affirmed that SpaceX’s “irresponsible actions” had created “unnecessary distractions, threatened US military satellite operations, and undermined [the US’s] future relationship with the International Space Station”.
“We are hopeful that our two nations will engage in productive conversations over the coming months that will resolve the matter quickly,” ULA said.
ULA added that it could switch to a second vehicle – Boeing’s Delta rocket – which used US-built motors and could meet all its customers’ needs. It also had a two-year supply of RD-180 motors “to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket”.
Mr Thompson said the US military strongly favoured using ULA for its most sensitive launches because of its flawless record of putting satellites safely into orbit. Most other rocket systems continue to suffer regular launch failures that destroy vehicle payloads.
“The Ukraine crisis has made policy makers reflect on the wisdom of relying on Russia for any type of lift requirements, either manned or unmanned,” Mr Thompson said.
Three astronauts – one American, one Russian and one Japanese – were due to leave the ISS in the early evening on Tuesday US eastern time to return to earth. They were due to land near Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. A further three astronauts – one American, one Russian and one German – are due to blast off for the space station from Kazakhstan on May 28.
The Russian segment of the ISS can exist independently from the US one, but the US segment cannot exist independently from the Russian one
- Dmitry Rogozin, Russia deputy prime minister
Assuming Russia does not reconsider, its decision on the ISS could strengthen China, which aims to have its own space station by 2020 and is currently excluded from the ISS – chiefly because of opposition from the US.
Mr Rogozin said Moscow would not impose sanctions of its own, and would not obstruct the work of US astronauts. However, he called the US an “unreliable” technology partner and said the government was therefore seeking to intensify work with other countries.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is due to present new plans for space exploration to parliament. Mr Rogozin said it was looking to redirect funds from manned space flight to other, more promising areas and had been advised to seek co-operation with Asian countries.
Russia also threatened to switch off 11 GPS ground stations on its territory unless the US agrees to its request to establish a similar station for its own satellite position system Glonass in the US. The GPS ground stations would be suspended from June 1 and switched off on September 1 if a bilateral working group failed to reach consensus on the Glonass issue, Mr Rogozin said.
GPS, on which services such as navigation and mapping apps rely, would still work as its satellites continue to operate. But it would lose accuracy because the ground stations help correct the satellite data.