The famous International Space Station (ISS) currently floating above Earth in low-Earth-orbit is due to crash back down to Earth sometime in early 2031, according to NASA. The giant space station weighs roughly 450 tons and is slightly larger than a football field. In a news announcement made this week by NASA, it is being intentionally crash to bring closure to the program.
“The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity,” said Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters. “This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnership to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration, continue to return medical and environmental benefits to humanity, and lay the groundwork for a commercial future in low-Earth orbit. We look forward to maximizing these returns from the space station through 2030 while planning for transition to commercial space destinations that will follow.”
However, in 2030, operations on the ISS will cease and NASA will steer the giant space laboratory back towards Earth, with plans of sending whatever is left of it after a fiery re-entry into the atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean.
In December, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to extend International Space Station (ISS) operations through 2030, and to work with our international partners in Europe (ESA, European Space Agency), Japan (JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Canada (CSA, Canadian Space Agency), and Russia (State Space Corporation Roscosmos) to enable continuation of the groundbreaking research being conducted in this unique orbiting laboratory through the rest of this decade. But there appears to be little interest in extending the lifetime of the ISS beyond 2030.
While NASA hopes to continue groundbreaking research with its international partners in the coming years, it is also simultaneously working on its grand finale back to Earth. In the coming years, the altitude of the space station will lower before completely coming out of orbit late 2030/early 2031. The plan is to ultimately crash it into the Pacific Ocean by January 2031.
NASA documents state, “Eventually, after performing maneuvers to line up the final
target ground track and debris footprint over the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), the area around Point Nemo, ISS operators will perform the ISS re-entry burn, providing the final push to lower ISS as much as possible and ensure safe atmospheric entry.”
NASA documents also show they may need to send additional rockets and spacecraft into space to help knock it out of orbit and bring it back to Earth in a controlled fashion. “The ISS will accomplish the de-orbit maneuvers by using the propulsion capabilities of the ISS and its visiting vehicles. The overall de-orbit would require extra visiting vehicles beyond the regular cadence of traffic to the ISS. Not all visiting vehicles can be used to assist in the de-orbit. NASA and its partners have evaluated varying quantities of Russian Progress spacecraft and determined that three can accomplish the de-orbit. Additionally, Northrop Grumman has been expanding the propulsion capabilities of its Cygnus spacecraft, and NASA has been evaluating whether Cygnus could also be part of the vehicle capability needed to de-orbit the ISS.”
While cargo and crew head to the International Space Station from both NASA Kennedy in Florida and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, the Cygnus spacecraft is only launched from NASA Wallops at the Mid Atlantic Spaceport in the Mid Atlantic, along the coast of Virginia.
By using these additional assets to bring the ISS back down, NASA hopes to have a completely controlled, albeit fiery return, to Earth probably in January 2031
The planned crash site is a popular one for old spacecraft; the area is known as the “oceanic pole of inaccessibility” which is the place in the ocean that is farthest from any land. At 49.0273°S, 123.4345°W, the destined spot lies in the South Pacific Ocean roughly 1,681 miles from the nearest lands. Space companies and organizations will usually de-orbit their spent spacecraft and aim it into this area far away from land and people. The area is also referred to as “Point Nemo”; Nemo is latin for “no one.”