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The future of the International Space Station is bleak

The International Space Station (ISS) is falling apart in more ways than one.
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1994: The journey of true international space collaboration begins

The International Space Station (ISS), which currently roams 437 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, was commissioned way back in 1998. It currently consists of fifteen Russian, American and European modules and holds up to seven people inside. It has been hailed as a symbol of successful space and scientific collaboration between a range of different countries, including the two space superpowers – the United States and Russia. However, this era of peace and mutual understanding in space may be over.

Due to a range of factors, such as the emerging new Cold War between Russia and the West over the current conflict in Ukraine, the state of the ISS itself and the practicality of the ISS existing as new space stations are drawn up, the future is unquestionably bleak, or even non-existent.

The ISS is falling apart … not only literally.

Photo credit: Norbert Kowalczyk

The station has been in operation for 24 years and, thus, it is not surprising that every year something breaks inside and outside it. The station also often runs the risk of encountering space debris – recently, crew members even had to hide inside spaceships as a matter of avoidance. It is already abundantly clear to everyone that in the next decade, the ISS will need to be removed from orbit because it will no longer be able to cope with its tasks. NASA plans to crash it by 2031. In addition, many countries are already ready to give up using it, because they are building their own space stations. Russia, for example, has announced plans for its own space station to be up and running by 2025.

Who owns and operates the ISS?

The International Space Station is an international project involving 14 countries. Most often researchers from Russia and the United States use the station, but scientists from Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency (ESA) also conduct their scientific work.

The station is controlled from different Control Centers. For example, the Russian segment of the ISS is controlled from the Space Mission Control Center, which is located in Korolev. The American segment of the station is controlled by specialists from the Lyndon Johnson Mission Control Center, located in Houston, Texas. The space station also has Columbus and Kibo laboratory modules, which are operated by two European Space Agency centers, located in Germany and Japan.

What’s happening on the ISS today?

As of this writing, there are seven people inside the ISS: four U.S. astronauts, two Russian cosmonauts and one specialist from Germany. Despite conflicts on Earth, the station remains calm because there is a kind of “space code”. But in the last twenty years, astronauts aboard the station have already encountered a number of diplomatic crises. Today, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the situation in the space industry is very tense, but it is not something that affects the interpersonal relationships on the ISS itself.

That is … for now.

Photo credit: Alexis Antonio

When will the ISS be removed from orbit?

NASA recently announced that the ISS will be crashed into the middle of the sea by January 2031. Before this occurs, all researchers inside will be returned to Earth along with valuable scientific equipment. When the structure is empty, Mission Control Centers will bring it close to Earth so that it will pass through the atmosphere, partially burn up and fall into a spacecraft graveyard in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The risk of the ISS falling to Earth

Recently, U.S. authorities threatened that sanctions imposed on Russia could seriously harm the country’s space program. What exactly this means is not clear, but generally speaking – Russian researchers will not be able to cooperate with scientists from other countries. And this is despite the fact that most of the segments of the ISS are made in Russia and are operated by Russian centers. In response to all this, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, announced that this could lead to uncontrollable descent of the ISS and fall to Earth. The fact remains that the jet engines for controlling the position of the station in space are located on the Russian part of the station. Russia will, in turn, halt rocket engine deliveries to the United States. He stated that they would let US and European astronauts “fly on brooms” to the ISS.

Because of the termination of US cooperation with Russia, there is a risk of the ISS debris falling to Earth. At the same time, the probability of them falling on Russian soil is minimal, because the station does not fly over Russia. When the head of Roscosmos asked who would save the ISS from an uncontrolled fall to Earth, the question was immediately answered by Elon Musk – he simply sent him the SpaceX logo.

Elon Musk tweets SpaceX logo to Rogozin.

Unfortunately, at this point it is impossible to say exactly what the future holds for the ISS. There is no doubt that it will be decommissioned in the next decade – it is already very old and will definitely not be able to cope with its tasks in the future. But no one can say exactly when it will be removed from orbit and how that will occur. As the ongoing conflict in Ukraine develops, so will the uncertainty of the ISS.

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