Starting from 2017, Russia may start deploying its own high-latitude orbital station, according to sources in the space industry. The project, developed by research organizations under the Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), will feature modules previously planned for the International Space Station, but Russia will uphold its commitments to the ISS until 2020.

Modules previously intended for ISS will be incorporated into the new station. Photo: TASS

According to industry sources, Russia may begin work on the creation of its own space station in 2017. It will have to give up developing the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS) but will fulfil all its obligations to the other participants in the program to 2020. It is proposed that some of the modules that were previously intended for the ISS will be incorporated into the new station.

A source close to the administration of the Central Research Institute of Machine Engineering (the space industry’s leading research facility) said that creating a Russian high-latitude orbital station is one of the key provisions in a manned space program for the period up to 2050, which is being drafted by a joint group of experts from Russia’s space agency Roskosmos and associated research institutes. The Russian station is proposed to be deployed between 2017 and 2019.

“The initial configuration will be developed on the basis of the multi-purpose laboratory and nodes of the OKA-T spacecraft,” the source said, citing the group’s proposals. “The operation of the station will be ensured by Soyuz-MS and Progress-MS spacecraft, whereas in 2020-2024 it may be possible to test the energy and the node module used in the lunar program.”

What will happen to the ISS?

Despite these plans, sources insist that there is no talk of ending Russia’s work on the ISS ahead of schedule. Moscow is determined to fulfil its international obligations until 2020.

In May this year, as relations between Moscow and Washington were cooling and sanctions were being introduced, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the Russian space industry, said that Russia does not intend to extend the operation of the ISS until 2024, as proposed by the United States, and will use the allocated funding on other space projects. In early November, Roskosmos head Oleg Ostapenko informed NASA chief Charles Bolden that Russia will take the final decision on whether to extend the operation of the ISS until 2024 or not before the end of the year.

Why does Russia need its own station?

Sources in the space industry explain the logic behind the creation of Russia’s own space station by several factors. One is that the launch of manned Soyuz-MS rockets from the Vostochny cosmodrome (in the Amur Region of Russia’s Far East) to an orbital inclination of 51.6 degrees (which is the orbital inclination of the ISS) is fraught with serious risks for the crew during launch: In the event of a failure the cosmonauts will end up in open sea.

The inclination of Russia’s orbital station will be 64.8 degrees, while the flight course during the launch phase will be above ground. In addition, the station’s coordinates will make it possible to deliver cargos there using rockets launched from the military cosmodrome in Plesetsk, in the Arkhangelsk Region. Russia will thus get access to civilian space exploration from two sites and will eliminate potential political risks associated with the use of the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

“The new station will be located in a geometrically advantageous position, with a possibility to expand the sector of earth coverage,” the source said. “From the station, it will be possible to see 90 percent of the territory of Russia and the Arctic shelf, whereas for the ISS this figure is no more than 5 percent.”

Another function to be performed by the new station will be to conduct flight and development tests of manned lunar spacecraft: “In effect, we are talking of creating a bridgehead of sorts: first spacecraft will be delivered to the station and then proceed to the Moon,” the source explained.

How much this project will cost Russia?

The cost of the new station has not yet been disclosed. For the initial phase of deploying the space station, modules and spacecraft being developed for the Russian segment of the ISS will be used. Experts anticipate that this should not involve any additional costs.

Russia has been taking part in the ISS program since 1998. Currently, Roskosmos spends just one sixth of the amount spent by NASA on its maintenance (in 2013 alone, the U.S. allocated $3 billion for the purpose), although Russia is entitled to half of the crew places. Before joining the ISS project, Russia operated the Mir space station. In 2001, the station was decommissioned and its fragments fell into the Pacific Ocean after deorbit. One of the reasons given for that decision was that Mir was very expensive to maintain, costing some $200 million every year. In 2011, the former head of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency, Yury Koptev, admitted: “There were no grounds to continue operating Mir because of the disastrous state it was in. There were even such critical moments when we simply lost control of the station when adjusting its orbit.”

On Nov. 24, a session of the Russian-Kazakh intergovernmental commission will be held in Astana, to be attended not only by its co-chairman from the Russian side, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, but also Dmitry Rogozin. Together with Roskosmos head Oleg Ostapenko and his first deputy Alexander Ivanov, Rogozin may conduct a separate meeting on issues of manned space exploration, including the second phase of construction of the Vostochny cosmodrome. The first manned launch from there is scheduled for 2018.

The article is first published in English at Russia Beyond The Headlines. The original story first appeared in Russian in Kommersant.