The inevitable demise of the International Space Station
Scientists warn that one day the ISS will have to be destroyed, and this poses many risks.
Over the last few decades, astronomers have been able to uncover some truly amazing facts about the universe. Many of these discoveries are based on the International Space Station. Its contribution to the development of science is indisputable.
Construction of the ISS began in 1998, but planning began in the 1980s. “At the time, no one had any idea how such a thing was actually being built. This is one of the largest engineering projects in human history, “said Christian Mender of Axiom (which plans to build a new space station to one day replace the ISS).
Despite all the difficulties that scientists face, the end result is more than impressive. Today, the ISS weighs over 400 tons, is approximately as long as a football field, and all sorts of experiments are performed on board.
While the ISS is still under construction, scientists are beginning to think about its imminent demise and the dangers it poses. In 1979, the first American space station, Skylab, weighing nearly 80 tons, caused great panic, falling uncontrollably to Earth.
Most of it burned in the atmosphere, but debris of various sizes still reached the earth’s surface and fell off the coast of Australia. “In the early days of space missions, no one worried about such things. Pieces of the station fall to Earth – big deal! Today, however, people are much more careful, “said Harvard University astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
The risk that one day the ISS will fall uncontrollably to Earth is not to be underestimated. The station is the largest man-made object orbiting our planet. Scientists are unanimous that when it falls, the ISS cannot burn into the atmosphere completely and parts of it would certainly reach the earth’s surface. “It will look like a plane crash, only the debris will be scattered over a huge area.
What would be the worst-case scenario?
Undoubtedly, it will be the one where the debris falls in densely populated areas. “Such an incident would look like the 9/11 attacks,” McDowell said.
Unless there are any unforeseen complications, flights to the ISS will continue at least until 2024. As the station is a joint project of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency, the decision to retire it will undoubtedly depend not only on scientists but also on politicians. “From a technical point of view, the ISS can continue to operate at least until the end of 2028,” said NASA. Many experts believe that the station will continue to operate even after this deadline.
Whatever happens, one thing is certain – the ISS will not function forever and one day it will come to an end. But how exactly will this happen?
This question is increasingly being asked by experts from NASA and Russia’s Federal Space Agency “Roscosmos”. “It simply came to our notice then. The problem is that until recently, scientists did not think about this topic at all. They focused on the research being done aboard the ISS, but time is running out and a detailed plan needs to be drawn up, ”McDowell said.
NASA officials have revealed that they are already working on a strategy to safely change the orbit of the ISS and smash it to Earth. “Our goal is to reach an agreement with all our international partners,” the US space agency said. As early as 2017, a group of engineers from NASA and Roscosmos presented a report on the options for the destruction of the station.
It gives the example of the crash of the Mir orbital station in the South Pacific in 2001. However, scientists emphasize that the ISS is three times heavier. They also warn that even the slightest mistake can lead to catastrophic consequences.
One of the most frequently mentioned scenarios involves the Russian cargo spacecraft Progress-M. It can dock with the ISS and direct the station to a lower orbit, using its engines for this purpose.
Much of it will burn up in the atmosphere, and the rest of the debris will head to a deserted spot on the globe (most likely somewhere in the Pacific Ocean). This would be the best possible scenario.
But the 2017 report also mentions the danger of a serious accident aboard the ISS. In such a case, scientists will have no more than two weeks to decide what to do and proceed with their plan. For this reason, the willingness to act decisively and precisely will be of great importance and can save many lives.
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