Since the International Space Station (ISS) launched more than two decades ago, it has hosted more than 200 astronauts and aided countless scientific discoveries. The aging spacecraft is approaching its retirement, and like other decommissioned spacecraft, NASA will crash the ISS into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean in a controlled landing planned for 2031, according to newly released details from the agency.
"While the ISS will not last forever, NASA expects to be able to operate it safely through 2030," the report states.
The station, which orbits 227 nautical miles above Earth, has served as a science lab in space for astronauts from 19 different countries. It was assembled in sections, starting when a Russian rocket launched the first piece in 1998. Two years and a few module additions later, the station was ready for its first astronauts, which arrived on November 2, 2000. By 2011, the spacecraft was complete with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a gym, and huge solar arrays to capture energy from the sun. For the past 20 years, the ISS has been able to host around six astronauts at a time, sustaining a human presence in space.
To break from its orbit, the ISS will perform thrusting maneuvers that would ensure "safe atmospheric entry,” according to NASA’s report. The football field–length station will crash into the Earth at Point Nemo, a location in the Pacific Ocean that has been called the “Spacecraft Cemetery." Point Nemo is around 3,000 miles off of New Zealand's eastern coast and 2,000 miles north of Antarctica and has been a space junk target for decades. It's estimated that the United States, Russia, Japan, and European space agencies have sunk more than 250 pieces of space debris at the location since 1971, Katie Hunt reports for CNN.
Until the ISS meets its watery end in nine years, the agency plans to make the most of the station, including conducting research, boosting international cooperation, and helping the private spaceflight industry gain more momentum, according to Scientific American’s Mike Wall.
"The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity," says Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS at NASA Headquarters, in a statement. "We look forward to maximizing these returns from the space station through 2030 while planning for transition to commercial space destinations that will follow."
Next, NASA is looking to private companies to help sustain the ISS and build future stations. Houston-based company Axiom Space has agreed to attach a privately built module to the station as soon as 2024. In December of last year, NASA awarded a total of $415 million to Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman to build their own private space stations, according to Jennifer Hassan and Christian Davenport for the Washington Post. NASA plans to act as a customer, paying to send its own astronauts to use private space outposts.
"The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA's assistance," says Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, in a press release. "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.”