The International Space Station is a curious place because it is the one place above Earth where the major powers of the planet can cooperate to a certain degree,

Born out of the goodwill of countries such as the US, Canada, Japan, Russia and the partner nations from the European Space Agency — a total of 16 countries coming together — the ISS was launched back in 1998. So who owns this low-orbit artificial satellite? It is shared, and the details are contained in multiple agreements and treaties.

The International Space Station

You might have heard that it was only recently when a Space-X capsule successfully brought home NASA’s Shannon Walker, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, and Japan’s Soichi Noguchi after a five-month stint at the ISS. That was the longest any man had stayed on the science laboratory in space. Yes—that is precisely what the ISS is. This massive laboratory has been in existence for more than 20 years now, and every now and then, it needs a boost of gas fuel from visiting spacecraft. Every spacecraft that has docked into the ISS would have extra propellant, which they inject into the ISS. Sans that, it would fall and burn into the atmosphere in a giant ball of fire.

The Station orbits the Earth in 93 minutes, completing 15.5 orbits a day, and that means 15 sunrises and sunsets. That is awesome. Apart from enjoying sunsets, the astronauts in the laboratory live together in pressurized habitation modules that are divided into the US Orbital Segment and the Russian Orbital Segment. We can laud the two nations who were once fierce rivals in the Space Race for becoming the best of friends today when it comes to space work.

As of 2020, 242 astronauts, space tourists, and cosmonauts have visited the ISS, many of them recurring visitors. With no delays, a spacecraft could travel to the station in just six hours. Up to six spaceships can dock at the same time.

Planned to Operate Until 2024

The ISS is scheduled to be operational until 2024. However, NASA officials clarified that from a technical standpoint, the ISS could fly until 2028 and according to data from their analysts, nothing is precluding them from extending it beyond 2028. That means the investments made by the nations were worth it as the ISS could potentially be operational for at least 30 years.

Another Skylab?

So while the ISS could operate for at least until 2028, what could happen if a catastrophe happens? Solar flares are known to occur, potentially harming the electricity and other circuitry in the laboratory. Worse, it could cause the laboratory to crash to Earth. Scientists are concerned that another Skylab incident like when a craft once plunged to Australia uncontrolled can occur.

To prevent something like this from happening, a group of scientists from Rocosmos and NASA presented a paper in 2017 evaluating some disposal options during the 2017 International Astronautical Congress. Deorbit procedures were patterned after what was done with Mir in 2001. In the plan, a Russian Progress vehicle would either perform a burn maneuver while docked to the station or transfer some gas fuel to the main thrusters while maintaining its altitude. The other option is a controlled deorbit where Progress vehicles would do the same thing, this time to lower the station to its lowest height. Each burn would be timed to ensure that the burn only dropped it to a certain degree and controlled the entry into the atmosphere. So instead of falling in densely populated areas, the space station would eventually fall into the sparsely populated South Pacific Ocean.

Their 2017 plan has options for both a scheduled deorbit and a potentially catastrophic incident as those in charge would only have two weeks to react to any untoward incident in space.

What is in the future?

Once the ISS has been decommissioned, Axiom Space has been designated to build the next one. This time, however, they are prepared for the eventual decommissioning. We can give Axiom Space credit for planning for the next space station to be truly modular, where each segment has its own navigation and control system, with thruster capabilities. That only means each module could fly on its own, and if needed, separate and return to Earth on its own.

Whatever the future holds, we can predict that space travel would be the norm, and the role of future space stations is critical to understanding life in space better.

Photo Sources:
Cover – NASA via National Geographic
Photo #1 – Pixabay / geralt
Photo #2 – YouTube / ABC News In-depth
Photo #3 – Axiom Space via Space News