The Future of the International Space Station: Decommissioning and Controlled Reentry

Jaxon Wildwood

Updated Tuesday, June 25, 2024 at 9:41 AM CDT

The Future of the International Space Station: Decommissioning and Controlled Reentry

The International Space Station's Decommissioning Plan

The International Space Station (ISS), a marvel of modern engineering and international cooperation, is set to be decommissioned in 2032. This decision marks the end of an era for a structure that has played a pivotal role in space research and exploration. However, decommissioning such a massive structure is not as simple as turning off the lights and locking the door. If left alone, the ISS's orbit would decay over time, eventually causing it to crash back to Earth in an uncontrolled manner.

To avoid a random and potentially hazardous crash, NASA and its international partners have devised a plan to guide the ISS to a controlled reentry. The designated crash site is a remote area in the Pacific Ocean known as the spacecraft graveyard. This method ensures that the ISS will safely disintegrate and any remaining debris will fall into a part of the ocean far from human habitation.

The Challenges of Moving the ISS

One might wonder why not simply push the ISS out into deep space. The answer lies in the complexities of orbital mechanics and the immense fuel requirements for such an endeavor. An orbit is essentially a state of perpetual falling while missing the ground, making it a delicate balance to maintain. Moving an object out of orbit, whether to a higher orbit or into deep space, requires significant energy and complex propulsion systems.

The ISS is a massive structure, assembled through multiple rocket launches, making it inherently expensive to move. To push it upwards into a higher orbit or out of Earth's gravitational pull would require a colossal amount of fuel, as there is no external assistance in space to aid the process. In contrast, dropping the ISS in a controlled manner is much simpler and less expensive. Only a small amount of fuel is needed to push the ISS downward until atmospheric drag takes over, guiding it to its final resting place.

The Mechanics of Controlled Reentry

The process of controlled reentry involves a series of precise maneuvers. To push the ISS downwards, only a small amount of fuel is needed, after which atmospheric drag will naturally slow it down and cause it to reenter Earth's atmosphere. This method leverages the ISS's continuous skimming of the upper atmosphere, which contributes to its gradual orbital decay.

In contrast, pushing the ISS upwards would require a significant amount of fuel and energy. Achieving escape velocity from Earth requires a speed of 11 km/s, and to escape the Sun's orbit, an object would need to reach a staggering speed of 617 km/s. The Saturn V rocket, which took humans to the Moon, only managed to get out of Earth's orbit, highlighting the immense fuel requirements for such a feat. Therefore, the controlled reentry approach is not only more feasible but also more cost-effective.

The Spacecraft Graveyard: A Safe Haven

The spacecraft graveyard in the Pacific Ocean is a designated area for the controlled crashes of decommissioned space objects. This remote location is chosen to minimize the risk to human life and property. Over the years, it has become the final resting place for numerous satellites and space debris. By guiding the ISS to this location, NASA and its partners can ensure that the decommissioning process is conducted safely and responsibly.

The decommissioning and controlled reentry of the ISS is a complex yet well-planned process. The decision to guide the ISS to the spacecraft graveyard in the Pacific Ocean is driven by the need for safety, cost-effectiveness, and feasibility. As we bid farewell to the ISS, we can look forward to the future of space exploration, knowing that we have the knowledge and capability to manage our space assets responsibly.

Noticed an error or an aspect of this article that requires correction? Please provide the article link and reach out to us. We appreciate your feedback and will address the issue promptly.

Check out our latest stories