Russia Warns of Potentially Pathogenic Space Germs on ISS

A Russian scientist has expressed concerns that the country's planned space station could end up being contaminated with germs already on the International Space Station (ISS).

Russia's plans for its Russian Orbital Space Station (ROSS) are ongoing amid the country's continued invasion of Ukraine, which has been internationally condemned. One possible option for the creation of the ROSS station would be to use existing Russian modules attached to the ISS. These modules could be detached and then operated independently.

However, Oleg Orlov, director of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), has reportedly said that creating the ROSS station in this way could lead to "potentially pathogenic bacteria" spreading through and destroying parts of the station, according to Russia's state-run TASS news agency.

International Space Station
Russia, a major International Space Station partner, is planning to create its own space station. Above, the ISS is seen shortly after the Space Shuttle Atlantis undocked in September 2006. NASA/Getty

During a Russian space council meeting, Orlov was cited by the RAS as saying: "The option of creating the ROSS using the ISS modules will lead to the transfer of the microbiota to the new modules [and] will accelerate the process of their biocontamination which will result in potentially pathogenic bacteria and technophiles participating in the process of the biodestruction of materials emerging at the ROSS."

Orlov added that germ contamination had interfered with space tech once before when equipment was damaged by microorganisms during a mission on Russia's former Mir space station.

"Cumulative results show that microorganisms in numbers exceeding normative requirements were detected in 65 [percent] of samples," Orlov added according to TASS, noting that the amount had been increasing. Germs reportedly included those from the staphylococcus and streptococcus groups.

Space agencies have measures in place to prevent microbial contamination in space—NASA uses clean rooms that thoroughly clean payloads destined for the ISS—but research has shown that space stations can host bacteria and fungi that could harm astronauts and equipment.

It's unclear what Orlov's comments will mean for Russia's ROSS plans. Experts have told Newsweek in the past that they doubt Russia will be able to get its space station operational in the foreseeable future due in part to financial issues, suggesting that microbes could be the least of their concerns.

Still, Russia's space industry chief Dmitry Rogozin has repeatedly threatened that the country could stop participating in the ISS project in which it has been a major partner for decades, working alongside the U.S. and several other countries.

Amid an international backlash against the war in Ukraine, Rogozin said in April that a decision on whether or not to pull out of the ISS had already been made and that partners would be informed of that decision with a year's notice. The Russian government has committed to continue working on the ISS until 2024.