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What Will Happen to the International Space Station After Its Retirement?

Published Jul 06, 2024
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The International Space Station (ISS) is nearing retirement age. At the end of 2030, the space station will reach the end of its 30-year mission. But what do you do with an obsolete spacecraft weighing nearly one million pounds (453,592 kg) orbiting 250 miles (402 km) above the Earth?

Rather than let it continue orbiting the planet, NASA has plans to destroy the ISS by sending it to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To accomplish this, the space agency has awarded Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, a valuable contract, worth up to $843 million. SpaceX will need to construct a specialized deorbit vehicle that can attach to the ISS and guide it to Point Nemo, a remote southern Pacific location more than 1,500 miles (2,414 km) from the nearest land.

Although other destinies for the ISS were proposed, such as pushing it into a higher Earth orbit, disassembling it for recycling, or transferring operations to a private company, destroying the station was ultimately deemed to be the safest and most straightforward option.

Cruising along at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 km/h), the International Space Station will continue orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes until the end of 2030, just as it has done since the first module was launched in 1998. Over 270 astronauts and cosmonauts from more than 20 nations have lived and worked aboard the space station since November 2000.

Although NASA hopes that the ISS will remain functional until the end of its life, the space station is showing its age both inside and out due to stressors such as fluctuations in temperature each time its orbit passes in view of the sun. It’s possible that the 2030 date might need to be moved up if the station’s condition deteriorates more rapidly than expected. Geopolitical tensions on Earth could also play a role, as the station relies on international cooperation. Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, operates six of the 17 modules, and plans to leave the space station by 2028.

Four privately owned space stations are currently under development and will take on many of the functions performed by the ISS over the last few decades, just as NASA already relies on private companies for crew and cargo transport. NASA has awarded contracts of between $125 and $160 million USD to Axiom Space, Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman to develop their own space stations, which will also host astronauts from other countries and private enterprises.

So long to the ISS:

  • Over 3,300 experiments have taken place aboard the ISS, which is essentially a microgravity research center.

  • Between 2021 and 2022, China put its first long-term manned space station into orbit, known as Tiangong.

  • The Point Nemo “space graveyard” contains the remains of over 263 retired spacecraft from various countries, including Russia’s Mir space station, which crashed safely at Point Nemo after being decommissioned in 2001.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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