It’s official: the ISS will retire for good after 2030, and NASA has already unveiled the program for its flamboyant funeral.
The future of the International Space Station was still written in dotted lines until the American administration validated the extension of its lease, which was initially to end in 2024. It is now done, and the station has benefited a final reprieve until 2030; The opportunity for NASA to reveal some details about the fate that awaits it.
During its 24 years of activity, the station has become so indispensable that the American administration has agreed to extend the adventure as long as possible. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end; beyond this new deadline, the ISS will be too old, and therefore too unreliable, to ensure the safety of astronauts and equipment.
It will therefore not be entrusted to private operators, as was envisaged for a time; they will certainly be keen to build their own machines, which are more efficient, ergonomic and secure. But at least this illustrious old lady will be entitled to a flamboyant funeral that will end in the middle of the ocean.
A fateful brake stroke
In 2031, NASA will therefore begin to dismantle the station module by module. The most recent can be recycled, or even reused as is to assemble a new structure as the Russians plan to do. The oldest modules, on the other hand, will not have this chance and will move on to the next stage: de-orbiting.
To maintain a stable orbit (or almost) at an altitude of 400 km, the station spins around the Earth at around 28,000 km/h. But if this speed decreases, the machine will lose part of its inertia, which is then no longer sufficient to compensate for the effects of gravity. Result: the latter begins to pull the object out of its orbit, like when you stop spinning a slingshot.
It is this phenomenon that NASA will exploit; it will only have to slow down the modules in question at the right time to trigger an irreversible de-orbiting process, at least in the absence of a sufficiently powerful engine. Result: the remains of the ISS will eventually penetrate the atmosphere at several thousand kilometers per hour.
A spectacular fireworks display before the big dive
This is when the fireworks will begin. Because if it is easy to travel at this speed in the vacuum of space, it is another story when you have to make your way through billions of air molecules. In this context, the friction is immense, and the exposed surfaces will therefore heat up very quickly. When it is planned to recover the device, it is essential to protect it with heat shields; otherwise, once the peak speed has been reached, the temperature is such that the ship will become a veritable torch surrounded by a plasma at several million degrees. Extreme conditions, and sufficient to vaporize most of the structure.
This is precisely what will happen to the ISS, which is obviously not designed to withstand such constraints. But some elements could still survive this furnace, and therefore turn into extremely dangerous supersonic projectiles. A possibility that it would be very unwise to neglect; fortunately, NASA has already foreseen the blow and will try to aim for Point Nemo – “pperson” in Latin.
A great crash, then eternal silence
As the name suggests, this is a very uncrowded area of the Pacific Ocean, since it is the farthest point on Earth from any landmass. An ideal final resting place since it will avoid any accident in the event of a bad surprise during atmospheric re-entry. It is for this reason that Point Nemo has gradually become a real satellite cemetery. The ISS will therefore rest alongside some of its illustrious ancestors, in the imperturbable silence of this deserted area.
Its other advantage is that it is an area surrounded by the South Pacific Gyre, a powerful circular current that blocks the way to currents from coastal regions. This means that the region is very poor in nutrients. There are very few species likely to suffer from the crash of the ISS. If the simple fact of sinking such a structure obviously seems questionable from an ecological point, NASA is at least doing its best to limit the damage.
The “new” ISS still has work to do
Until then, the station still has a bright future ahead of it, and NASA intends to make the most of it. “NOTWe look forward to being able to maximize the performance of the ISS until then”, explains the press release of the agency. A direct reference to the change in status of the ISS, which is now open to private companies and institutions. It will thus abandon its status as an exclusive hub to participate in the development of the commercial space of tomorrow, before taking a well-deserved retirement which will transform NASA in depth.
There remains one last point to address: before de-orbiting, it will be necessary to ensure that Tom Cruise has left the module-studio where he will soon be shooting a film. Knowing the proportion of the bugger to perform his own stunts, even if it means taking considerable risks to obtain a spectacular plan, he would be able to cling to it during the final descent to try to parachute out!