The International Space Station (ISS) is set to continue operating for the remainder of this decade after its mission was extended through 2030. In 2031, however, it will plummet down to Earth to a watery grave, NASA has revealed. Moving forwards, the agency says that all activities in low-Earth orbit (LEO) will be conducted by commercial operators, enabling NASA to concentrate on projects in deep space.
“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters. The agency’s report on the ISS's death was compiled in order to finalize its “comprehensive plan for ensuring a smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030.”
Launched in November 1998, the ISS is operated by the space agencies of Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada, and the US, and is currently approved to remain in use until 2024. The Biden administration has already committed to extending the station’s lifespan to 2030, although this plan must be agreed to by all parties.
“The ISS is now entering its third and most productive decade of utilization,” said NASA in the report, before going on to explain it expects to “realize significant advances” in each of its “five major mission goals” by the end of the decade. These include paving the way for deep space exploration, conducting research “to benefit humanity”, fostering a US commercial space industry, leading and enabling international collaboration, and inspiring humankind.
According to the proposed plan, the transition from the ISS to the commercial sector will result in “no gap in the Government’s ability to use low Earth orbit space platforms.” Rather than operating its own space station, NASA says it will pay for a minimum of two crew members per year to conduct research aboard commercial LEO spacecraft once the ISS ceases to function.
This shift is expected to result in an annual saving of $1.3 billion in the first year, rising to $1.8 billion by 2033. NASA says this extra cash will all be funneled into its deep space exploration program.
Following its retirement, the ISS will plunge into the Pacific Ocean in a controlled re-entry, landing at a location known as Point Nemo. Named after Captain Nemo, a fictional ocean navigator who first appears in Jules Vern's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Point Nemo is the furthest spot from land on planet Earth, with the nearest land being around 2,700 kilometers away.
Its remoteness makes Point Nemo the ideal location for a crash landing, which is why it has become famous as the place where spacecraft go to die.