The International Space Station cannot stay in orbit 250 miles above us forever — which is why NASA has shared updated plans outlining when, where and how the huge structure will fall to Earth.
Some analysts call the remote location the “spacecraft cemetery,” and others refer to it as the “loneliest place on Earth” because the nearest mainland is 1,670 miles away. As the National Ocean Service puts it: “You can’t get farther away from land than ‘Point Nemo.’”
Stijn Lemmens, a space debris expert, said in 2018 that 250 to 300 spacecraft are believed to be buried in Nemo’s waters.
The space lab, which also serves as an observatory, has been continuously occupied by astronauts for more than 20 years and will operate until 2030, under a commitment from the Biden administration.
“While the ISS will not last forever, NASA expects to be able to operate it safely through 2030,” the report published Monday reads.
In a 24-hour period, the station orbits Earth 16 times, traveling through 16 sunrises and sunsets, according to NASA.
It has for over two decades been at the forefront of research and discoveries, with Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station at NASA headquarters, calling it “a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity” that seeks to benefit humanity and shape the future of space exploration and travel.
But the ISS is aging and must eventually retire.
Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA headquarters, said the plan delivered to Congress outlines a “smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030.”
The future of space science remains an intense focus for NASA and in many other countries, with organizations poised to execute a number of missions that include exploring the moon and Mars.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, which was founded by Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post), continue to experiment in space tourism, with both companies hoping to offer groups fleeting rocket trips to space this year.
Even Alexa may be venturing into space in the near future, with Amazon confirming that astronauts may one day be able to “ask for near real-time data about the spacecraft and the mission” while inside the capsule.
Because of its giant size, the International Space Station’s return to Earth must be expertly controlled, and operators will need assistance from visiting vehicles to safely lower its altitude.
According to the “de-orbit plan,” detailed in NASA’s newly published transition report, operators will undertake a range of maneuvers to “ensure safe atmospheric entry.”
Operated by five space agencies representing 15 countries, the station includes several sleeping quarters, a gym and a 360-degree viewing window. But while the floating structure is vast, those on board have reported leaks and remain alert for flying space junk.
In 2016, one of the lab’s windows was hit, and the European Space Agency said the resulting chip in the glass was probably caused by something as unassuming as a flake of paint. Last year, a piece of space junk punctured the station’s robotic arm, leaving a small hole but a big reminder that it is vulnerable.
The situation worsen last year after Russia destroyed a dead satellite with a missile. That created a cloud of hundreds of pieces of debris and forced the astronauts on the station to seek shelter inside their spacecraft, waiting to see whether they’d have to abandon the station for home. They didn’t, but NASA has said the added debris will cause more close passes.
Last summer, NASA was relieved that the ISS’ solar arrays didn’t snap off when errant thruster firings from a newly installed Russian module spun the station upside down before crews could get it back to its normal orientation.
NASA is now looking to the growing commercial space sector to build the next space station. Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, already has an agreement that will allow it to attach a privately built module to the ISS as soon as 2024. And it is planning to build a station of its own, one that would be more modern — and luxurious — than the government-built station.
NASA also recently awarded contracts, worth a combined $415.6 million, to a team led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, a team including Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, as well as Northrop Grumman, to develop their own private space stations. While NASA would not own or operate them, it would use them as a customer, and continue to have a place to send its astronauts well after the ISS is decommissioned.
The NASA report was welcomed by some sectors of the space industry. “This announcement is a gigantic punctuation mark that the era of the ISS is coming to an end,” said Jeffrey Manber, the president of international space stations for Voyager Space. He added that it is a signal to investors and potential customers that they can now work with the commercial space sector “knowing that the government is committed to a new era of smaller, more efficient commercial space stations.”