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Why Russia Is Abandoning The International Space Station

With its programs aging, Russia has announced that it's pulling out of the International Space Station in 2020. Where does that leave space exploration for the rest of the world?

U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looking out the ISS
U.S. astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looking out the ISS
Elena Kudryavtseva

MOSCOW — An alarm went off in the American section of the International Space Station (ISS) on Jan. 14, warning that ammonia, which is used to cool the space station's energy system, had leaked into the atmosphere. Without it, the station would blow up like a can of food placed on an open flame. Following instructions, the three American astronauts fled to the safety of the Russian section, joining three astronauts there. It turned out that the space station's atmospheric monitoring system was simply malfunctioning.

A similar incident had happened before, in May 2013, when the astronauts spent six hours trying to find the problem. "A sensor that goes off erroneously is a signal that the space station can't stay in use forever," explains Andrei Ionin, an expert in space technology at the Academy of Astronautical Science. "At the beginning, the International Space Station was supposed to work through 2015 — that is, until about right now. There was good reason for deciding on that period of time, since the various systems on board have a certain guaranteed length of service."

The number of malfunctions and errors will only increase from now on, which is among the reasons why Russia's decision to pull out of the ISS in 2020 was a wise one, Ionin says.

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