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Space: NASA to deorbit, and dismantle the aging ISS with SpaceX’s help

Space: NASA to deorbit, and dismantle the aging ISS with SpaceX’s help

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Virendra Pandit

New Delhi: Launched in November 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) is aging and the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has initiated the process to dismantle it after deorbiting with help from Elon Musk’s SpaceX which has been entrusted with designing the deorbiting vehicle by 2030.

By then, commercial space stations operated by private entrepreneurs in space tourism are expected to start functioning.

The ISS is a large space station assembled and maintained in low Earth orbit by a collaboration of five space agencies and their contractors. Its speed on orbit is 7.66 km per second and orbit height is 408 km. Its maximum speed is 28,000 km per hour. When launched in 1998 for USD 1,500 million, its shelf life was estimated to be around 25-30 years.

NASA has selected SpaceX to design and develop a vehicle capable of deorbiting the ISS after its operational life ends in 2030, the media reported on Wednesday.

“Selecting a US Deorbit Vehicle for the International Space Station will help NASA and its international partners ensure a safe and responsible transition in low Earth orbit at the end of station operations,” NASA announced.

“The orbital laboratory remains a blueprint for science, exploration, and partnerships in space for the benefit of all,” the statement added.

The planned SpaceX deorbiting vehicle will help dismantle the station and allow it to fall back to Earth in a controlled way, after which it is expected to destructively break up as part of the re-entry process.

The US space agency said the decision supports its plans for future commercial destinations and allows for the continued use of space near Earth. NASA hopes the private industry will have the space stations up and running by the time the ISS is taken out of orbit.

On January 25, Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the ISS may continue to operate until commercial space stations are in orbit and ready for crews.

“We want (the commercial stations) to be supportive, and then when they’re ready to go, that’s when the ISS will move out of the way,” Space.com quoted Stich as saying.

While the private space industry has been booming for the last two decades, no company has operationalized a space station in Earth’s orbit. Some companies, such as Axiom Space and Blue Origin, are, however, in the process of building their own space stations and plan to operationalize them by the end of this decade.

The ISS has been supported by five space agencies in its operations. They are, besides NASA, Russia’s and State Space Corporation Roscosmos, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

According to NASA, the US, Japan, Canada, and the participating countries of the European Space Agency have committed to operating the ISS through 2030, while Russia will continue supporting the station until at least 2028.

The contract to deorbit the station is reportedly worth up to USD 843 million, which does not include launch costs.

The ISS has served as a scientific platform for many countries to conduct experiments across multiple disciplines of research, including Earth and space science, biology, human physiology, physical sciences, and technology demonstrations, which are not possible on this planet.

NASA, along with its main partner Roscosmos, has admitted that they have been unable to stop a worsening problem of microscopic leaks on the station. The ISS is aging, and the number of technical glitches has been rising for many years. The US-based space agency released a study saying it was technically and economically unfeasible to try to preserve or reuse the ISS.

Experts say the decision to dismantle the ISS was now “an unavoidable choice.”

The emergence of innovation in the private space industry has made NASA confident enough to hand over the reins to capable players. It could still be possible to extend the life of the space station beyond 2030, but the decision was contingent on the international partner agencies agreeing to support its operations beyond that period.


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