International Space Station: If Decommissioned, What Will Happen?

International Space Station: If Decommissioned, What Will Happen?
International Space Station: If Decommissioned, What Will Happen?

In less than three years, many contracts between NASA and its international partners for the maintenance of the ISS in orbit will expire and we have been thinking about the aftermath for some time: here are the hypotheses and plans

(Image: Nasa)

The construction of the International space station it began in 1998, with the launch on November 20, and has never really finished: in its past 8 thousand days in orbit, the station was gradually enlarged, modified, reassembled. It has hosted hundreds of astronauts from 19 different nations, and dozens of experiments have been conducted there in microgravità which have significantly improved our knowledge in the fields of biology, of the climate changes, of the geology and many other branches of science, as well as, of course, astronomy, astrophysics and space exploration.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end sooner or later. And it seems like it’s time to say goodbye forever International space station (Iss) be closer and closer. As time passes, the station slowly continues to move out of its programmed orbit, and needs more and more frequent trajectory adjustments: Most of the fuel that comes from Earth is actually used for this purpose. The station is also constantly threatened by micro meteoriti e space debris and, according to the laws of probability, it is only a matter of time before one of these impacts is fatal.

The plans of the United States

There’s more. Formally in the 2024 will expire many of the contracts between the Nasa and its international partners for the maintenance of the station. In this regard, the scenarios that can be opened are very different. In a press conference last August, Bill Nelson, administrator of the US space agency, said he wanted to extend contracts until at least 2030. “We expect the Space Station to continue to be a government project throughout this decade – he said – and we hope that in the future it will also be supported by other private stations.

The reality, however, at the moment is different: the US Congress, in fact, has not approved any request for funding beyond 2024, and the approvals of Canada, Russia, Europe and Japan. Josef Aschbacher, director of theEuropean space agency, and Walther Pelzer, director ofGerman space agency, said they were in favor of extending the life of the International Space Station.

Others, even within NASA itself, are instead of a completely different orientation. Phil McAlister, for example, director of commercial flight development for the US agency, said, for example, that he is convinced that this is “The right time to start detaching ourselves from the International Space Station, which now represents the state’s monopoly on space missions, and look more at the private sector: it is time for NASA to focus on other objectives, such as the exploration of deep space, the return to the Moon and the human exploration of Mars, and to leave the contract for the Earth’s orbit to private entrepreneurs “.

Assist private individuals

Indeed, in recent years, NASA has done a lot for increase the interest of individuals towards the Space Station. In 2019, for example, the agency tried to place the ISS on Nasdaq and the administration of then US President Donald Trump hinted at the possibility of subcontract the management of the station to a private operator.

The logic behind these operations is simple: in the plans of the US space agency there is an explicit desire to build a base on the Moon and of bring astronauts to MarsThis is not an easy goal if one-fifth of one’s budget is to be devoted to keeping the International Space Station active.

Something in this direction has been moving for some time: NASA’s most ambitious project involves the construction and launch of the Lunar Gateway, a new space station which, however, should orbit around the Moon. It is designed in conjunction with Roscosmos, This e Jaxa and, in the intentions of the builders, it will be used as a base for missions to the Moon and Mars. The launch of the first module, weighing 50 tons, is scheduled for 2024; the other main components should follow shortly, including a robotic arm, l’habitat for the crew and theairlock.

Axiom in pole position

Returning further down, on Earth’s orbit, one of the most eligible private partners is Axiom Space, a company born with the aim of bringing into orbit the first entirely privat space stationto. In early 2020, NASA allowed Axiom to dock one of its modules at the International Space Station. The company plans to launch it by 2024 and then continue construction directly in space.

In addition to a crew accommodation module, Axiom intends to send at least two others into orbit, alaboratory / workshop and a panoramic observatory similar to the dome of the Iss. The company plans to leave these three modules docked at the International Space Station until it is decommissioned (which, according to Michael Suffredini, co-founder and CEO of Axiom, will take place no later than 2028). When NASA decides to pull the plug, the Axiom modules will separate from the ISS and will become de facto the first private space station ever sent into orbit.

The design of the Axiom station, seen from the outside, is very similar to that of the International Space Station. The modules are cylindrical, measure about 15 meters in diameter and are connected to the station as if they were huge Legos. They will be built, apparently from Thales Alenia Space, a European company that made many of the modules of the International Space Station. There is more: Axiom, in fact, would also be evaluating the possibility of using inflatable modules similar to TransHab, a concept developed by NASA in the 1990s but never built due to the refusal to approve the project by Congress.

Space tourism

Who will use the Axiom space station if it were to actually be built? Suffredini’s sights are first of all the space tourists, for which one thinks of less austere hospitality solutions (and probably more expensive) than those offered by the ISS, but also other government and private space agencies, which could do “base” on the Axiom station to conduct tests and experiments and launch new missions. The project, on the other hand, seems to be definitively shipwrecked B330, the idea of ​​an inflatable space habitat (the number 330 refers to the cubic meters of available space) designed by Bigelow Aerospace. In 2016, a test module was launched, which remained docked at the ISS for about two years, but the real idea never took off (sic).

In addition to thinking about the successors of the ISS, of course, the problem of hers also arises “disposal”. It is unthinkable to abandon the station to its fate, since an uncontrolled descent into the Earth’s atmosphere would be too risky and could lead to accidents on the ground. The most viable option, at the moment, seems to be that of a dcontrolled descent along a trajectory ending in the South Pacific, one of the least populated regions on the planet. We’ll see.

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