Under the pressure of crushing economic sanctions, Russia’s straining to play its own intimidation game. This time, they are threatening to take the International Space Station out of orbit and hurtle it down to Earth. How could they make good on this absurd threat? What places would be in danger of impact? And what would this all mean for the future of space exploration?
The ISS orbits above the Earth’s surface at an altitude of about 400 km (250 mi). From end to end, the largest spacecraft ever built is about 109 m (358 ft). That means, including its solar panels, it stretches the length of an entire football field. And it has the volume of a five-bedroom house to accommodate as many as 11 astronauts if needed.
The station wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the 15 nations that joined forces to build and use it. Five different space agencies were involved in getting all the nodes and modules of the station off the ground and into orbit. But its days in orbit could be numbered. Dmitry Rogozin, director-general of Roscosmos, posted a series of tweets that stated in part: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from an uncontrolled deorbit that falls into the United States or Europe? There is also the option of dropping the 500-ton structure to India and China.”
Could Russia really hijack the ISS and turn it into a falling death trap? Bombastic as it sounds, the threat is not completely far-fetched. Russia could even manage to do it without the cooperation of the cosmonauts currently onboard the station. Right now, significant changes to the orbital pattern of the ISS cannot be done without cooperation with Roscosmos.
These adjustments can be made by the thrusters of two unmanned Russian Progress supply ships or a Zvezda service module. Without these necessary adjustments to orbit, the ISS would be left to fend for itself. This would put the station and the cosmonauts onboard at risk of dangerous collision with large amounts of debris currently orbiting the planet.
On the other hand, the thrusters on these devices, primarily used for delivering supplies and fuel or making repairs, could be controlled to send the ISS out of orbit. But surely Russia wouldn’t endanger the lives of its own cosmonauts. Right? Think again. In November 2021, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile on one of its own satellites.
This threatened the safety of all ISS crew members, who had to prepare for collisions with the massive amounts of debris generated by the explosion. So with your doubts cast aside, now would be a good time to look up. Spot anything bright moving across the sky and getting bigger? You could easily think this is just a comet streaking across the sky with its tail of colorful gas trailing behind it.
You’d be stunned by the sheer beauty of this sight. Until you remember that’s the ISS heading right toward you. The ISS passes over India, China, the U.S. and much of Europe. So you could find yourself at high risk of impact in many parts of the globe. Russia itself wouldn’t have reason to worry about any self-inflicted damage in this case.
The station is made from tough, durable materials like dense titanium, kevlar and high-grade steel. But entering the atmosphere, the intense heat and pressure could break it apart. And as that is underway, you’d see fiery explosions of glitter and bright light. This would be both beautiful, and a positive sign. The station breaking into smaller pieces could mean more impact sites.
But the impacts would all be significantly less severe than if it remained intact. Imagine cities like Los Angeles, London or Hong Kong taking a direct hit from the completely intact space station. It would leave a crater almost 1,300 m (4,265 ft) wide and 470 m (1,540 ft) deep. Anyone close to the impact area would be killed or severely burned in the ensuing explosive fireball. And the impact itself could trigger a magnitude 6 earthquake.
Depending on where the strike occured, you’d see tens of thousands of people or more die. Millions could be severely injured or displaced by the destruction. If all this unfolded it would damage the relationships between many space agencies. And losing our only space laboratory currently in orbit would certainly be a significant setback to the future of space exploration.
But if there’s one silver lining, this kind of maneuver could take several years to unfold. Hopefully, this would give NASA and other agencies enough time to react. Maybe they’d be able to guide it directly into the spacecraft cemetery located in Point Nemo, the furthest region from land on Earth.
This would just be a little earlier than expected as the ISS is set to retire and plunge to this spot in 2031. Using the ISS as a weapon would be a disastrous event that could endanger millions of lives. But so would launching a nuke.
- “What Is The International Space Station?”. 2020. nasa.gov.
- “Russia Threatened To Crash The ISS. Can It? “. Becky Ferreira. 2022. vice.com.
- “International Space Station To Crash Down To Earth In 2031”. 2022. bbc.com.
- “How Does The International Space Station Dodge Space Junk?”. Joe Pappalardo. smithsonianmag.com.
- “Close Call From The Cosmos”. 2022. insurancequotes.com.