- For over two decades, the International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting Earth at a speed of about eight kilometres per second, while an international crew of astronauts and cosmonauts onboard conducted groundbreaking scientific investigations that have thrown open the doors for deep space exploration.
- But now NASA has announced that the spacecraft will cease operations in 2031, after which it will fall out of orbit and plunge into the waters of the South Pacific Ocean.
- NASA published a transition plan for the ISS, in which it explained how its operations will eventually be transitioned to commercial low-Earth orbit destinations.
How does the ISS work?
- The International Space Station was the brainchild of former US President Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 proposed building a permanently inhabited spacecraft in cooperation with a few other countries.
- In 1998, the first piece of the space station, a control module, was launched into space on board a Russian rocket. About two weeks later, a crew onboard the US’ Endeavour space shuttle attached the control module with another part, the Unity node.
- Over the next two years, the space station was built piece by piece until it was ready to carry a crew onboard. It was on November 2, 2000, that the first crew arrived. Since then, the space lab has carried over 200 astronauts and cosmonauts from about 19 different countries — marking a continuous human presence in space.
- According to NASA, the space station weighs about a million pounds on earth and is approximately the same size as an American football field. It can support a crew of six people, along with visitors. It also houses laboratory modules from the United States, Russia, Japan and Europe.
- Several landmark firsts were recorded onboard the ISS in the last two decades. For instance, in 2018, NASA’s Cold Atom Lab became the first facility to produce the fifth state of matter, called a Bose-Einstein condensate, in space. In 2016, a NASA astronaut was able to sequence DNA in space for the first time.
What’s next for the ISS?
- According to NASA, once it retires, the ISS will be replaced by one or more commercially-owned and -operated space platforms.
- This transition to renting space onboard commercial platforms could end up saving NASA $1.3 billion in 2031 alone. The money saved can be applied to Nasa’s deep space exploration initiatives, allowing the agency to explore further and faster into deep space.