It should have been in space for years, but a start has been postponed again and again: On Wednesday Russia plans to send its research module called “Nauka” (science) to the International Space Station (ISS). A Proton-M launcher will bring the 13-meter-long laboratory in the afternoon (4:58 p.m. CEST) from the Russian spaceport Baikonur in the steppe of the Central Asian Republic of Kazakhstan to the human outpost at an altitude of 400 kilometers. The flight is said to take eight days.
Future of the ISS unclear
For a long time it has been puzzled in Moscow whether the flying laboratory will ever be used. Planned start dates have been canceled countless times because of problems or lack of money. Most recently, Russia questioned its future participation in the ISS – and to this day it has not clearly positioned itself as to how long the proud space nation will operate its part of the station. The contract for this expires in 2024.
Jan Wörner, Europe’s long-standing aerospace director, sees the start of the module as an important signal beyond the day. “I see Nauka as a clearly positive sign that Russia will be using the ISS for a longer period of time,” says the ex-head of the European Space Agency.
In any case, the heads of the Russian space agency Roskosmos should breathe a sigh of relief when Nauka has reached the ISS in the coming week. Critics have been complaining for years that the technology of the laboratory is long out of date. Construction had already started in 1995. At that time it was only 70 percent completed.
It was originally supposed to fly in 2007. Nauka is the sister module of “Sarja”, which was launched in 1998 as the first segment into space. The last time Russia flown a new module to the ISS was in 2010.
Nauka is to be attached to the Russian segment. Several field missions by Russian cosmonauts are expected for completion. As a multipurpose module, it is primarily intended for research. But it should also serve as a team quarters with its own life support system. Nauka measures 13 by 4.11 meters and weighs more than 20 tons.
The flying laboratory has, among other things, the European Robotic Arm (ERA), which was designed by ESA, and large solar panels. Oxygen and water can also be produced. And the space travelers then have an additional toilet – not unimportant if tourists should visit the ISS again in the future.
In view of the aging technology, it is unclear whether the module could be used for the planned new Russian space station Ross in a few years – especially since this station is to fly in a completely different orbit according to preliminary plans.
But Russia needs good news. The space nation is likely to see itself challenged by the recent successes of China and the USA and see the start of Nauka as a sign of life. In the industry, one recently no longer had the impression that Russia was at the forefront in exploring space. The mission is likely to make a lot of decisions for Russian manned spaceflight.
Displeasure has recently grown among Russian scientists. “We have been generally dissatisfied with what we have achieved in the development and exploration of space over the past few decades,” said the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexander Sergeyev, of the Tass state agency in the spring. “This is primarily because there are economic difficulties.” President Vladimir Putin recently called for more speed so that Russia is not left behind by other space nations.
Print on Roscosmos
Roskosmos boss Dmitri Rogozin is also likely to be under pressure. Most recently, the completion of the module was carried out in three shifts. Rogozin should like to stick to his lapel the success of finally completing a project that has been running for 20 years.
It is unclear whether Moscow wants to hold onto the ISS with the launch of Nauka until at least 2028, as it had indicated by spring. Just a few weeks ago, Rogozin linked an extension beyond the previously planned year 2024 to the lifting of US sanctions against Russian space companies. At least shortly before the start of the laboratory module, there was no longer any question of that.
Instead, Russia is now reminiscent of glamorous times, for example when Yuri Gagarin was the first person to fly into space in 1961. The Proton rocket bears the inscription “60 years of the first human flight into the cosmos 1961-2021”. It is now considered to be discontinued and should be replaced by Angara in the medium term.