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Sensemaker: Long orbital goodbye

Sensemaker: Long orbital goodbye

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Xi Jinping repeated a warning to Joe Biden that he was “playing with fire” by strengthening US ties with Taiwan.
  • The UK’s defence ministry said Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group were holding sections of the front line in Ukraine for want of regular troops.
  • A giant video screen fell on members of the boyband “Mirror” as they were performing in Hong Kong.

Long orbital goodbye

Has war on earth wrecked cooperation in space? For a while this week that looked to be the case. The head of Russia’s space agency told Putin Russia would be pulling out of the International Space Station after 2024 and Putin said “good”. 

A cosmic walkout? Yes, it’s possible:

In principle, Roscosmos could send up a Soyuz capsule from its Baikonur cosmodrome and order its two remaining cosmonauts aboard the ISS, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, to pack for home. They could seal off the station’s Russian pods, take the keys, power down the Progress spacecraft that currently keeps the ISS in orbit and leave the greatest technological collaboration in human history to float gently earthward and burn up on re-entry. 

It would be a poke in the eye for Nasa and confirmation that Putin’s zero-sum world view extended, disastrously, to space.

In practice, the closing chapters of the epic story of the ISS will not unfold like this.

  • Russia doesn’t want to abandon the station until it’s ready to launch a new one of its own to be called the Russian Orbital Space Station, or ROSS.
  • It cannot currently build ROSS because war and sanctions have drained discretionary research funding, and for all its Soviet-era self-sufficiency the modern Russian space programme is heavily reliant on western tech.
  • All of which explains why, a day after Yury Borisov of Roscosmos had his meeting with Putin, one of his subordinates, Russian ISS flight director Vladimir Solovyov, quietly confirmed Russians would “of course” stay aboard the station until ROSS was ready.

This means cosmonauts will be there at least until 2028 and possibly until 2031, when Nasa plans to start retiring the whole $100 billion station anyway.

Deja vu. Yes, we’ve been here before. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 its then deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who went on to lead Roscosmos, threatened to halt participation in joint ISS plans in response to western sanctions. The threats proved empty, not least because the station’s Russian and non-Russian components were designed to be interdependent precisely to prevent earthly politics interfering with cosmic cooperation.

Nasa and its contractors could take over the whole station but for now…

  • periodic nudges from the rocket engines of Progress craft docked to the Russian Zvezda module keep the whole ISS in orbit;
  • Zvezda also houses the station’s own main engine unit and serves as docking station for all spacecraft visiting from Baikonur; and
  • overall ISS mission control is based near Moscow, in Korolev.

Can this last? No. Russia’s war in Ukraine rules out its involvement in long-term cooperation with western agencies in space as everywhere else. And in any case the trend even before the February invasion was towards less cooperation, not more.

The Artemis Accords, written by the US during the Trump administration and upheld by Biden, are less cordial and more commercial than they sound. They offer a legal framework for commercial space activities (including space tourism and moon mining) that critics fear would erode the multilateralism that has underpinned most human space exploration since the UN’s Outer Space Treaty of 1967,

The Artemis Programme, not to be confused with the accords, is Nasa’s plan to go back to the moon and has nothing to do with Russia. 

Ironies. Russia’s inability to stage a protest walkout from the ISS now stems from its dependence on western space capabilities, but for nine years from the end of the Shuttle programme to the first SpaceX supply mission to the ISS (2011-2009), the only way there was on a Russian rocket.

And SpaceX was nearly built with Russian hardware: Elon Musk’s first foray into rocketry was a trip to Moscow in the early 1990s with a view to buying unused Soviet boosters. In the end he built his own.


Recession and growth 
Is America in recession? Its economy shrank at an annualised rate of 0.9 per cent between April and June, following a drop of 1.6 per cent in the first three months of the year. Six months of contraction is a common definition of recession – but in the US the final call is made by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which looks at a wider range of factors including unemployment (which is low at 3.6 per cent). Janet Yellen, the treasury secretary, called on Americans to avoid a “semantic battle”, arguing the economy “remains resilient”. But having to argue the point isn’t helpful for Biden, who is already historically unpopular as November’s midterms loom. Emmanuel Macron had a better end to the week: France avoided any talk of recession with a 0.5 per cent rise in GDP in the second quarter. 


Protein shape prediction
DeepMind, the AI company, has created a public database of the structure and shape of more than 200 million proteins from every organism whose DNA sequence is known. In 2021 DeepMind did the same for 98.5 per cent of human proteins (20,000 molecules), using algorithms and computing power that take only moments to predict protein structures while in conventional labs it can take months or years. Proteins are found in all living organisms and regulate their functioning (via enzymes, hormones and antibodies, for example), so understanding their structure is crucial for the creation of new drugs. To guard against bioterrorism, DeepMind excluded viruses from the database, which is hosted by the European Bioinformatics Institute. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Responding to other infectious viruses post-Covid was always going to be tricky. Too strong a response risks panic. Too little risks an unmanageable spread. So when cases of monkeypox – a zoonotic disease from west Africa – began ticking up across Europe it’s unsurprising that health officials treaded carefully. An added complication is that around 95 per cent of cases so far are among gay and bisexual men, or men who sleep with men (GBMSM), a group with strong collective memories of the AIDS crisis. Unlike HIV, however, monkeypox is not a sexually transmitted disease. Close contact in sexual encounters and social gatherings is believed to be causing the spread, and it’s a fine but important distinction. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, warned that “stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus” when he declared the disease a global health emergency against the advice of his own committee. That shouldn’t stop governments targeting the most affected groups with vaccination and awareness of potential symptoms, as has been the practice so far in the UK, where there have been over 2,200 reported cases. Although some with the disease have been hospitalised, the risk to life is low. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Tories for climate
The UK’s Conservative leadership candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have been noticeably lacklustre on climate action, preferring to focus on tax policy in their race for Number 10. This could be a mistake, as two new polls suggest Conservatives care about net zero commitments and better plans for energy efficiency. The first survey, conducted among more than 6,500 voters by consultancy Public First and think-tank Onward, found a quarter of Conservative voters would back another party if the Tories removed the net zero target – and support for net zero is highest in seats where the Conservatives have smaller majorities. A separate poll for the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit targeted Conservative members and found that 85 per cent support incentives to improve home insulation as well as better environmental standards for new build homes, while 71 per cent wanted more government backing for both onshore and offshore wind energy. Could the “teal independents” who swung Australia’s last election swing Britain’s next one too?


Tavistock closing
The UK’s only dedicated clinic for children and young people experiencing gender dysphoria has been told to close by next spring. An independent review into the Tavistock and Portman Trust found the current care being offered at the clinic was leaving young-people “at considerable risk” of poor mental health and distress. In its place, the NHS has said regional hubs will be set up to provide “holistic care” for patients – one in London and another in the northwest both tied to existing children’s hospitals. Dr Hilary Cass, who is leading the ongoing review into the service, has also said having only one clinic was not “a safe or viable long-term option”. It’s been a tumultuous few years for the clinic, which has seen staff, whistleblowers and patients testifying in the media and in the courts. Overwhelmingly, that testimony has been critical. At the same time, lengthening waiting lists show an undeniable need to provide support for young people struggling to understand their gender. Further listening: our ThinkIn from January 2021 on what’s been happening inside the Tavistock. 

Something for the weekend. Long queues at Dover are causing misery for holidaymakers as they head for France en masse for the first time since Covid. Document checks required by Brexit are largely to blame, whatever Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak choose to tell their party faithful. But there’s an infrastructure component to this debate as well. Since the 2016 EU referendum Calais has dramatically expanded the footprint of its port facilities. Dover hasn’t.

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis. Graphics by Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images, NASA

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