Russia could be planning to abandon the International Space Station and build a rival base with the help of China.
The country’s Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, is also considering ditching human cosmonauts from the new station in favour of robots.
The news adds to rising tensions between Russia and the West and could spark the start of a new ‘space race’.
Andrei Ionin, chief analyst of the Russian Academy of Cosmonautics, told the Russian press that ‘the Russian segment of the ISS may separate from the station after 2024’.
He suggested that China and Russia could join forces to form a rival station to the ISS.
The space chief revealed that officials were discussing pulling Russian cosmonauts from the ISS when US Space Agency Nasa hands it over to the private sector in 2024.
‘Now is the time when one needs to make a decision about the ISS… For the time being, we are discussing different options, although one should have done it a lot earlier.
‘The space station of the future must also be an international project. Such projects need to be discussed long in advance.
‘The key question here is not about the size of the station or its location in space – whether it is going to orbit the Earth or the Moon. The key question is about international cooperation. We need to understand who our partners are.
‘All other questions are secondary.
‘Clearly, Russia and China can build such stations, but this is not a question of technologies or finance.
‘Russia solves secondary questions related to modules and their functions. I believe that Russia and China can be very good partners at this point.’
Should Russia choose to leave the ISS the country would sever a symbolic diplomatic tie with the West.
It could help lead the two sides into a second space race, reminiscent of the technology race between Russia’s space agency and Nasa in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Each super power waged a bitter campaign to prove the superiority of their space technology in a race that became symbolic of the Cold War era.
The race was built on a mutual recognition that outer space was the ultimate territory to attack and defend from in the event of all-out nuclear war.
China is not an ISS partner and no Chinese nationals have ever been aboard.
The $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.
Its current crew members are made up of four Russians and two Americans.
Nasa spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a level of funding that is endorsed by the Trump administration and Congress.
A U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees Nasa has begun looking at whether to extend the program beyond 2024.
Alternatively the money could be used to speed up planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.