According to NASA, the International Space Station will cease operations in 2031. What is the mission of ISS, how will it be retired, and what comes next?
WASHINGTON D.C – The International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting Earth at a speed of about eight kilometers per second for more than two decades, while an international crew of astronauts and cosmonauts onboard has conducted groundbreaking scientific investigations that have paved the way for deep space exploration.
However, NASA has announced that the spacecraft would cease operating in 2031, at which point it will fall out of orbit and into the South Pacific Ocean.
NASA released a transition plan for the International Space Station, outlining how its functions would eventually be transferred to private low-Earth orbit destinations.
“The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity,” ISS director Robyn Gatens said in a recent press release.
How does ISS work?
Former US President Ronald Reagan proposed in 1984 the construction of a permanently occupied spacecraft in collaboration with a few other countries, which led to the creation of the International Space Station.
The first component of the space station, a control module, was sent into space on a Russian rocket in 1998. About two weeks later, a crew on the US space shuttle Endeavour connected the control module to another component, the Unity node.
The space station was built piece by piece over the next two years until it was ready to carry a crew onboard. The initial crew arrived on November 2, 2000. Since then, the space lab has transported over 200 astronauts and cosmonauts from around 19 different countries, establishing a continuous human presence in space.
According to NASA, the space station weighs nearly a million pounds and is roughly the size of an American football field. It can house a team of six persons as well as tourists. It also houses laboratory modules from the United States, Russia, Japan, and Europe.
Several historic firsts have been recorded onboard the ISS over the last two decades. For instance, in 2018, NASA’s Cold Atom Lab became the first facility in space to synthesize the fifth state of matter, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate.
For the first time, a NASA astronaut was able to sequence DNA in space in 2016. Advanced water filtration and purification systems, as well as successful crop production experiments onboard the space station, have also provided valuable lessons for people all around the world who lack access to these critical resources.
How will the ISS retire?
Per the NASA’s budget projections, the ISS will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in January 2031. Mission control will lower the spacecraft’s altitude before it begins its descent into the “South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA),” also known as Point Nemo.
“ISS operators will perform the ISS re-entry burn, providing the final push to lower ISS as much as possible and ensure safe atmospheric entry,” the transition plan explains.
Point Nemo has turned into a sort of space graveyard, where decommissioned space trash is frequently laid to rest. It is named after a figure in Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” and is located approximately 2,700 kilometers from any shore.
Apparently, the ISS was only supposed to be operational for around 15 years. NASA extended its mission in space by another ten years in 2014.
What’s next to ISS?
According to NASA, once it retires, the ISS will be replaced by “one or more commercially-owned and -operated” space platforms. “The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.
According to NASA, the switch to renting space on commercial platforms may save the space agency $1.3 billion in 2031 alone. The savings will “be applied to Nasa’s deep space exploration missions, allowing the agency to explore further and faster into deep space.”
However, NASA has set some lofty goals for the next decade until the ISS is retired. This includes the spacecraft serving as a “analog for a Mars transit mission.”
This article contains materials from NASA, USA Today, and India Times.