Deorbiting the International Space Station

by | Apr 26, 2022 | News Articles, Product, Space Exploration

After more than two decades in space, we will soon be witnessing the end of the International Space Station (ISS). But what happens after?

After more than 21 years in orbit, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has made it clear to conclude the journey of the International Space Station (ISS). The reality is that the football-field-sized space laboratory is aging and its time is coming to an end.

As much as we have grown to appreciate the space science lab over time, the ISS operating in orbit forever is out of the question. It has to come back down. Not to mention that weighing at 430,000 KG and operating 400 KM above our planet in low-Earth orbit, the ISS will require regular maintenance and fuel boosts to keep the lab up and running, or the atmospheric drag will pull the lab down. To add, the growing issue of space debris is of no help either. The constant need to anticipate, maneuver, and avoid oncoming debris can pose a great challenge for the ISS. In this case, even the smallest impact can spell tragedy for the lab. 

Throughout its lifetime, the ISS has been lauded as a beacon of international cooperation in the name of space, technology and science since its launch in 1998. The lab has been home to numerous technological innovations and scientific research that have expanded our knowledge on the secrets of our universe. Despite the many geopolitical issues that may rage on ground below, the ISS has always seemed to manage peaceful partnership between various countries and their astronauts aboard. 

Astronauts aboard the ISS (Source: NASA)

This unity did take a recent hit when Russia pulled out from the international alliance on the ISS and also suspended its cooperation with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), along with European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Nevertheless, the ISS’ international make-up requires collective agreement from global partners, including Canada, Japan and the ESA, in regards to any actions concerning the space station. Thus far, only NASA has taken the first step to continue operations safely on the ISS until 2030, after which the lab is expected to be deorbited by reentering Earth’s atmosphere with surviving parts plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

NASA’s latest update, International Space Station 2022 Transition Plan, details the agency’s vision for the ISS in the coming decade and end-of-life plans for the space station. It is no doubt that great precautions and meticulous planning will be employed in deorbiting the ISS. For the most part, the space lab will depend on the natural atmospheric drag to maneuver it as safely and as closely as possible to the lower altitude. Once all of the crew aboard the station have returned back to Earth, the ISS will gradually be steered via small maneuvers by the station itself and visiting spacecrafts to align the craft over the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area where the operators can safely conduct re-entry burn. So, until then, what’s in store for the space station?

We are entering a new age of the commercial space industry, more specifically, an exciting era of private space stations. In the time between now and the ISS’ retirement, NASA not only expects to continue reaping the results of scientific developments from the space station, but also to facilitate a smooth transition of operations over to commercial space services and companies.

The rapid commercialisation of the space industry has already borne its fruits. The benefits of working with private companies have allowed NASA to ferry astronauts to the ISS on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, tackle space debris with cutting edge technologies from Astroscale and Privateer, support space tourism, and award three funded Space Act Agreements worth $415.6 million to Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman from the private sector to develop commercial space stations that will be available to both government and private consumers. In short, instead of another government-owned space lab, the ISS will be replaced with a commercialized low-Earth orbit (LEO) of privately developed and operated space stations. 

Orbital Reef (Source: Blue Origin)

One such space station includes the Orbital Reef that is to be developed in the LEO by Blue Origin in partnership with Sierra Space. Scheduled to start operations in the second half of the 2020s. Orbital Reef will essentially act as a space business park with diverse infrastructure to enable the growth of new markets, support the needs of international customers in the research, government and commercial fields,  and facilitate human spaceflight activity.

Starlab (Source: Nanoracks)

On the other hand, Nanoracks is collaborating with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin to build and develop Starlab. Planned to be launched in 2027, Starlab will be a commercial space station designed to nurture private industrial businesses, secure US’ presence and leadership in LEO, and host advanced research in their George Washington Carver Science Park with a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench zone. The space station is also projected to support architectural expansion and mimic the ISS in its power, volume and payload capacity.

Northrop Grumman’s space station (Source: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman’s private, modular space station will be rooted in the company’s knowledge from decades-long experience in working with NASA, defense, and commercial programs. For instance, the space station’s base module design is influenced by the Cygnus spacecraft that provides cargo services to the ISS. Multiple docking ports will aid the growth and expansion of the station to host a wide range of customers through the maintenance of a habitat for the crew aboard, laboratories for research and development, and facilities with artificial gravity.

Gateway (Source: NASA)

It is worthy to note that Northrop Grumman does seem to have an edge on the others as the company also plays a role in NASA’s Artemis program. This program’s goal revolves around returning astronauts to the Moon within this decade. Part of the program’s extensive developmental phases include the establishment of a smaller space station, called the Gateway, that will orbit the Moon and act as a stopover for astronauts traveling to and fro from the lunar surface. Northrop Grumman is currently assisting NASA in building the core module of Gateway. The multi-purpose outpost will not only serve as a way station but also support astronaut expeditions and scientific research. The Gateway will also be playing a critical role in NASA’s long-term plan to send the first humans to Mars. Thus far, Japan, Canada and the ESA have signed agreements with NASA to collaborate on the Gateway.

Tiangong Space Station (Source: CMSE)

Speaking of international participation, China’s Chinese Manned Space Agency (CMSA) has also taken on the gargantuan task of building a space station for the purpose of hosting scientific research from China and international partners. Scheduled to be completed by the end of 2022, the Tiangong space station will consist of three modules — Tianhe, Mengtian and Wentian. So far, Tianhe was launched in May 2021 with the other two modules joining it this year. Upon completion, the space station will also be home to Xuntian, a Hubble-like space telescope to assist in deep space exploration. 

Much has been achieved in the road to commercializing the space industry. For one, it has opened doors for many new entrants while encouraging competition in innovation and technologies to support a new space industry. Although space is known to be an expensive interest, despite the sky-high prices in the space industry today, the sector also expects to expand its target market by employing measures to mitigate costs and complexity via reusable space transportation and advanced automation. We are now entering the dawn of private space stations and commercial space projects, and we cannot wait to see the evolution that awaits us.