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International Space Station will eventually die by fire

Newsman: NASA announced its plans for the space station, which will sign off after 30 years in low-Earth orbit (via Gizmodo). This news comes about a month after the Biden-Harris administration extended the station’s operations through 2030. They were previously set to expire in 2024. But NASA’s making it clear that this is—officially—the end for the ISS. NASA plans to send the International Space Station into the ocean in 2031. The ISS marked 20 years of continuous human occupation on Saturday.

In early 2031, the ISS will re-enter Earth’s orbit to eternally rest with decommissioned spacecrafts, stations, and orbiters: South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA). The area just to the East of New Zealand even has the nickname the “Spacecraft Cemetery.” It’s a perfect dwelling for future Earthly inhabitants to discover with their surely-superior deep sea technology.

This news comes just after NASA sent a detailed report on the station and its future to congress. In the 24-page document, the agency laid out the station’s goals and objectives for the next several years. It also stated plans for the International Space Station’s retirement. Notably, the report cites the private sector for its ability to take over low-Earth orbit (LEO) enterprises. It’ll do so with NASA’s help, of course. And save the agency a lot of money—an estimated $1.3 billion in 2031 and up to $1.8 billion by 2033. NASA can then redirect those funds to other programs. 

The International Space Station has orbited Earth for more than two decades and the space station’s death will be grizzly: Like all of the most massive spacecraft, it will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

The massive orbiting laboratory has been a home to astronauts for a fully 20 years, and their visits have taught scientists tons about what it means to venture into the topsy-turvy world of microgravity. All told, space station construction required 42 separate launches, according to NASA. The facility would weigh over 900,000 lbs. (420,000 kilograms) on Earth, is nearly the length of a football field and boasts as much livable volume as a six-bedroom house, according to NASA.

For the past two decades, the International Space Station has been humanity’s home away from home. It’s hosted hundreds of astronauts from 18 countries. It’s served as the platform for groundbreaking science experiments that have fundamentally changed our understanding of human biologyclimate change, and the universe itself. It’s been a proving ground for futuristic technologies like organs on a chip and quantum communication terminals, and it’s fostered the birth of a vibrant commercial space industry. The ISS is arguably the best thing we’ve ever done. But all good things must come to an end.

Over the past few years, NASA has been pushing hard to stoke commercial interest in the space station. Last year, the agency declared the ISS open for business at the Nasdaq stock exchange. The Trump administration floated the idea of a subsidy to help transition the ISS to a commercial operator. The logic is simple: NASA officials want to build moon bases and send astronauts to Mars, which is hard to do when the agency has to shell out nearly a fifth of its annual budget to keep the lights on at the ISS. Still, NASA needs a crewed research platform in low earth orbit to test the technologies that will keep humans alive on other worlds. By leaning on private industry to build and operate new space stations, NASA can focus its efforts on pushing humans deeper into space.

“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in a press release. “The report we have delivered to Congress describes, in detail, our comprehensive plan for ensuring a smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030” he said.

Christian Maender, director of in-space manufacturing and research for Houston-based Company Axiom, which is planning on building its own space station, told Space.com. “No one had any idea how to build something like this when we started out on the ISS.”

It’s huge, it’s complicated, and it’s practically unbelievable. But the instant human intervention ends, the space station’s life is limited. “We built the largest peacetime engineering project ever, and by building pieces of an overall spacecraft that never actually saw each other or touched each other until they got to orbit” he said.

Axiom may be the first company to build a private space station that will make it to orbit, but is unlikely to be the last. Jeff Bezos has said he started Blue Origin with the intention of laying the foundation for a space economy that allows millions of people to live and work beyond earth. Earlier this year, the company posted a job opening for an “Orbital Habitat Formulation Lead,” which indicates the company is getting serious about creating a space station in low earth orbit. (Blue Origin representatives did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) And there will still be government-run space stations after the ISS, too. China has launched two small space stations called Tiangong 1 and 2 to test the hardware its national space agency will use to build a larger station later this decade

“NASA has been very open about the fact that in order to do exploration beyond low earth orbit, you have to have a platform there to test systems and get experience,” says Michael Suffredini, the cofounder and CEO of Axiom Space, a company that is poised to build the world’s first commercial space station. “The US government saw early on that to do exploration it couldn’t afford the next space station. And so that’s why we’re building one to replace the International Space Station after it retires.”

Earlier this year, NASA awarded Axiom the right to attach one of its own crew modules to a docking port on the ISS—and a $140 million contract to make it happen. The company’s plan is to launch its first module to the space station by 2024 and expand from there. In addition to the crew habitation module, Suffredini says Axiom is planning for at least two others: One will be a laboratory and manufacturing facility, and the other will be a panoramic observatory similar to the ISS cupola. The company’s plan is to leave the three modules attached to the ISS until it’s ready to be retired, which Suffredini expects to be around 2028. Once the world decides to pull the plug on the ISS, Axiom’s private habitat will detach itself and become the world’s first commercial free-flying space station.

From the outside, the design of Axiom’s space station looks remarkably similar to the ISS. The cylindrical modules are about 15 meters in diameter and are connected to the station like giant Tinker Toys. The reason for this, says Suffredini, is to take advantage of the space industry’s familiarity with the ISS. One of Axiom’s main contractors to build its modules, the European aerospace company Thales Alenia Space, also built nearly half of the modules for the ISS. Axiom’s station is also constrained by the size of existing launch vehicles. As bigger rockets come along, such as SpaceX’s Starship, it could make larger space stations possible. For example, Suffredini says Axiom is exploring the idea of using inflatable modules in the future. These would be similar to NASA’s TransHab, an inflatable ISS module concept the agency developed in the 1990s before the project was canceled by Congress. Axiom’s modules may be spherical or toroidal, and the diameter of each one could be up to three times larger than a conventional hard-shell model.

Suffredini expects Axiom’s station to be used by a variety of customers; like the ISS, it will serve as a research platform for government space agencies and commercial companies. It will also be a destination for the first wave of space tourists, which is why Axiom made the interior far more luxe than the austere accommodations of the ISS. The crew module’s decor was dreamed up by the famed interior designer Phillipe Starck and will come with plush padded walls, panoramic windows, and color-changing LEDs. But Axiom isn’t waiting for an arrival in orbit to stand up its space tourism business. Shortly after securing its docking port from NASA, the company inked a deal with SpaceX to send four private astronauts—one of whom turned out to be Tom Cruise, who will be shooting a movie on the station—to the ISS by the end of next year.

It’s an ambitious program for such a small company. Axiom has fewer than 100 employees, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in experience. Prior to cofounding Axiom, Suffredini spent a decade working at NASA as the program manager for the ISS, and he says this experience will help Axiom succeed where others have failed. And there have been a lot of plans for private space stations that never came to fruition.

Before the ISS was even a twinkle in NASA’s eye, the agency made its first foray into extraterrestrial hospitality with SkyLab, which could host up to three astronauts for weeks at a time. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Russia built a series of small space stations—first Salyut and then Mir. It was a start, but it wasn’t exactly Space Station V, the giant wheel in orbit portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

NASA’s Skylab hosted only three astronaut crews before the agency allowed it to burn up in the atmosphere in the summer of 1979. Everything in orbit eventually falls back to earth, and Skylab didn’t have a way to maintain its altitude without the space shuttle, which didn’t take its maiden flight until 1981. But NASA hadn’t given up on the idea of a space station. The next year the agency stood up a Space Station Task Force to start design work on its next-generation orbital outpost, Freedom. This station was intended to host up to eight astronauts at a time and would have been built with contributions from Canada, Japan, and several European countries. The station looked remarkably similar to what would become the ISS; in fact, NASA says that around 75 percent of the hardware designs for the International Space Station were originally for Freedom.

Hoteliers were also paying attention. After floating some ideas for orbital hotels and lunar getaways at space conferences in the late 1960s, designers for Hilton Hotels revived the company’s space station dreams just before the new millennium with plans for a large rotating circular space station built from spent space shuttle boosters. The idea was called Space Islands, but it doesn’t appear to have moved beyond a conceptual stage. A few years later, Robert Bigelow, whose ownership of Budget Suite Hotels turned him into a titan of the hospitality industry, also announced his intention to create a space station in orbit. Bigelow made it as far as launching an inflatable module to the ISS for tests in 2016, but earlier this year his space company, Bigelow Aerospace, laid off all of its employees. (Representatives from Hilton Hotels and Bigelow Aerospace did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)

In the future, Suffredini imagines that low earth orbit will be filled with space stations and that many of those will dwarf the ISS. After Axiom gets its first station built, he said, the next steps will involve building bespoke stations for companies that want to manufacture their wares in orbit. In 50 years, Suffredini hopes, the company will have a large rotating space station complete with parks, schools, and shopping centers to host not just professional astronauts but also their families. He envisions a spinning station that creates artificial gravity in the outer ring with a non-spinning hub in the center used for microgravity research. There are still significant engineering challenges that need to be addressed to control this kind of station, and the cost of space access would have to drop significantly to get that much material to orbit. But for Suffredini, these are the sorts of problems the world needs to embrace if we’re ever going to extend humanity’s reach into the solar system.

“We want to head toward this place where we’re really settling low earth orbit,” Suffredini says. “The evolution from exploration to settling is what has to happen for humanity to take the next great step and permanently live off the planet. That’s the long-term vision of what we’re doing.”

WHY THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION CAN’T STAY IN ORBIT FOREVER

Like the rest of us, the International Space Station is aging. That reality is a particular challenge in space, where the laboratory is at constant risk of impacts from space debris and micrometeorites and where even the smallest hiccup can mean disaster.

That said, NASA and other partner agencies regularly evaluate the station’s condition with an eye to its longevity. As of now, NASA is confident that the station will remain healthy through 2030, although their last complete analysis looked at the years ending in 2028.

But even if the International Space Station were still in mint condition, it can’t stay in orbit on its own indefinitely: It needs a regular boost or fuel injection from visiting spacecraft. If those boosts stop or something else goes wrong, sooner or later, the lab will fall.

“Basically, any cargo ship that comes to the space station, or indeed any ferry ship, usually has surplus propellant to a certain degree,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at Harvard who specializes in tracking objects in and falling out of orbit, told Space.com. “They have to have propellant to do the rendezvous, and then they can sometimes have extra to do a reboost.”

If those fuel deliveries stop, the space station will be at the mercy of the Earth’s gravity and atmosphere. What goes up must come down.

WHEN WILL THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION END?

Because of the station’s international nature — it’s a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and the participating nations of the European Space Agency — the decision to retire it will always be based on both engineering and politics. NASA has already committed to keeping the station in orbit until 2030, although its partner agencies have not signed on quite yet.

The eventual fate of the space station has always been a specter for NASA and Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency, but as time has passed, it has loomed larger on the minds of space experts.

“‘Oh, we’ll bring it down eventually,’ the idea has always been; ‘We commit to deorbiting it.’ But my sense is that they didn’t actually think through the details until about five years ago,” McDowell said. “Until then it was like, ‘La la la, it’s in orbit, we’re still building it, we’re not going to worry about how to get rid of it.’ Which maybe isn’t quite the way you should do things.”

In a document produced in January 2022 outlining procedures for transiting from the International Space Station to its desired commercial successors, NASA outlined a “nominal scenario” for the station, in which it is carefully lowered through the atmosphere by the end of 2030.

THE PERIL OF LETTING THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION DIE NATURALLY

Although the afterlives of spacecraft weren’t much of a concern when the International Space Station was being designed, its eventual demise didn’t go completely unconsidered.

That’s because just a few years earlier, in 1979, NASA’s Skylab station fell out of orbit. The agency had planned to give the station a boost using an early flight of the space shuttle. But that vehicle was delayed, leaving the 80-ton Skylab stranded even as solar activity picked up, warmed and expanded Earth’s atmosphere, and thereby accelerated the facility’s doom.

As a result, the spacecraft fell on its own, out of control, leaving no way for NASA to target the pieces over remote areas or slow the spacecraft’s descent enough to reduce the size of those pieces. Instead, chunks of the station scattered across Australia, the largest of them a massive oxygen tank. The incident was a turning point in how people think about how large objects leave orbit.

“In the early days of the space age, no one worried about it. Big thing falling out of the sky, no big whoop,” McDowell said. “People have gotten more and more risk-averse over the years.” And the longer spaceflight continues, the more experts worry about abandoned orbital debris, particularly the largest of it.

The risk if the space station does fall to Earth on its own is significant, McDowell argued. At about 400 tons, the space station is by far the heaviest human-made object ever to circle Earth. The larger an object is, the less likely the atmosphere is to be able to fully burn it up. And because of the space station’s outstretched solar arrays, it’s vulnerable to spinning out of control, at which point rescue options would be limited, McDowell said.

No matter what led to an uncontrolled entry, the results would not be pretty, he said, although not nuclear-catastrophe-level grim. It would be more like a plane crash, although with debris spread over a much broader area. “Worst, worst case, I guess it’s a 9/11, right?” McDowell said. “Because it’s at worst case a plane crashing, part of which is in a populated area. And that’s bad. But it’s not asteroid-hit bad.”

HOW TO DESTROY A SPACE STATION (SAFELY!)

A group of engineers from NASA and Roscosmos presented a paper evaluating some disposal options at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress. Their work is based on deorbit procedures conducted on the Russian space station Mir in 2001; the International Space Station is about three times heavier.

But the gist of the plan mirrors how the space station retains its altitude during normal operations. Most commonly, a Russian Progress cargo vehicle will either conduct a burn while docked to the station or transfer fuel into the main service module’s thrusters to fuel the station’s own burn; either way, the station climbs.

In a controlled deorbit, Progress vehicles would do the same thing but in the reverse direction, lowering the station’s lowest altitude. Depending on the precise array of spacecraft at hand, the service-module thrusters could also be used. In the 2022 transition report, NASA officials wrote that deorbiting the station would require three Progress spacecraft, although it is also analyzing whether Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft might be able to assist.

These carefully timed burns would maneuver the station lower at only one point in its orbit, making the re-entry more predictable and allowing managers to target the debris to the vast, sparsely populated southern Pacific Ocean. The rest is up to the destructive power of Earth’s atmosphere. The strategy, unsurprisingly, has its risks. If something knocks a burn off schedule, well, there goes the predictability.

The 2017 paper lays out options both for a scheduled deorbit and in response to a potential catastrophe on the space station. If something suddenly goes unfixably wrong on the orbiting laboratory, the organizations behind the facility will have just two weeks to decide how to proceed, the group wrote.

HOW WILL FUTURE SPACE STATIONS END?

The International Space Station’s successors may face smoother retirements — although these, too, will be fiery.

For example, Texas-based Axiom Space is planning to launch new station modules in a couple of years and, as commercial interest in accessing orbit grows and the ISS ages, eventually split off from the International Space Station to form its own freeflying orbital facility.

But Axiom has learned from the space station’s complicated fate and has already wrestled with how its facility will end. The company is planning its modules to be more truly modular than those on the space station, with the capability to easily remove and replace segments anyway, giving the company flexibility in its future.

The arrangement also means that each module can control its own fate. “Each module is going to be designed with its own guidance, navigation and control, its own thruster capabilities,” Maender said. “So they can fly essentially on their own, and then when they need to, they can separate and return through Earth’s atmosphere on their own.”

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