The International Space Station (ISS) will be guided down into the atmosphere and plunged into the ocean at the end of its life span after 2020, in order to reduce the amount of debris in space, the Russian space agency said yesterday.
“After it completes its existence, we will be forced to sink the ISS. It cannot be left in orbit, it’s too complex, too heavy an object, it can leave behind lots of rubbish,” said deputy head of Roskosmos space agency Vitaly Davydov.
“Right now we’ve agreed with our partners that the station will be used until approximately 2020,” he said in comments released yesterday.
Space debris is becoming an increasingly large problem that is affecting all satellites in space and not just the ISS. A piece of space debris narrowly missed the space station last month in a rare incident that forced the six-member crew to scramble to their rescue craft, AFP reports.
In October last year, Russia’s space agency ordered the International Space Station to change its orbit by 700 metres to avoid collision with a piece of floating debris that could have caused serious damage.
Astronauts briefly evacuated the station in 2009 because of the threat posed by a piece of debris only a centimetre (half an inch) long. Experts said even tiny objects can seriously damage a spacecraft as they travel at around 7.5 kilometres a second.
The United States says it has catalogued more than 15,000 items such as jettisoned rockets, shuttle detritus, and bits of destroyed satellites floating in space. The amount has increased due to events like China’s 2007 shooting down of a defunct satellite, and last year’s collision of an old Russian military satellite with a telecoms satellite owned by Iridium.
The ISS is a US$100 billion project involving 16 nations, including Russia, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada. The ISS was launched in 1998 and expected to remain in service for 15 years, but a later agreement will see it keep operating through 2010.
The ISS will follow the fate of Russia’s Mir space station, which was sunk in the Pacific Ocean in 2001 after 15 years of service.
The European Space Agency (ESA) said yesterday that the ISS still has plenty of life in it and could soon take on a new role as a testbed for ambitious missions deeper into space. For more than a decade it has been a busy orbiting research lab.
Future ventures for the space station could include Mars missions, lunar habitats or travelling to an asteroid – all needing new technologies and techniques that could be tested on the Station.
Following a meeting of the orbital outpost’s Multilateral Coordination Board on Tuesday, member agencies expect to begin identifying specific technology initiatives based on sample exploration missions.
The Board meets periodically to coordinate Station activities, with senior representatives from ESA, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, Russia’s Roscosmos and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
The meeting also discussed how successfully the Station has been used, the results of which will be published in September.
Exploitation of the Station’s research facilities is already well under way, the ESA said. ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli performed more than 30 experiments during his six-month MagISStra mission, which ended with his return to Earth in May.
Another European ‘passenger’ – the life-size Matroshka mannequin – ended its latest tour of duty in March, after a year monitoring radiation inside Japan’s Kibo module. Paolo removed internal dosimeters from Matroshka for return to Earth.
Other European experiments have been retrieved from outside of the Station. The Expose-R package hosted nine biological samples, including plant seeds and bacterial spores, to study the effects of two years of direct space exposure.
Another space exposure experiment involved fungi known for damaging spacecraft materials. Russia’s Mir station was particularly afflicted by fungal growth.
ESA experiments on a variety of crew members are providing new insights into the effects of weightlessness on our balance and how we perceive motion and tilt.
Physical processes are also being probed: the last Shuttle mission recently delivered new samples for a furnace in ESA’s Columbus module to investigate rapid solidification of molten metals in weightlessness.
NASA has designated the Station’s US segment as a national laboratory to encourage its use by national agencies, private firms and universities.
The Canadian Space Agency and NASA will test robotic refuelling systems delivered to the Station by the last Shuttle.
Roscosmos is investigating wheat and vegetable cultivation and human adaptation to long flights.
The Station is also being used as a platform for observing Earth, while Japan’s X-ray camera is looking in the other direction for cosmic objects such as black holes and neutron stars.