First launched in 1998, the International Space Station (ISS) has more days behind it than ahead. Sometime between 2024 and 2028, depending on your source, the ISS will cease operations. This deadline has led to a couple of interesting ideas on how to de-orbit the 925,000-pound vessel currently hovering 254 miles above Earth. It travels at more than 17,000 mph as it circles our planet 15 times each day.
One choice is to simply let it drop into a section of the ocean known as the Spacecraft Cemetery. Located about 2,400 miles southeast of New Zealand in the South Pacific, this remote location has been used numerous times to deposit defunct spacecraft and satellites. Following a prescribed atmospheric re-entry trajectory, a good portion of the station would burn up during re-entry, but many large modules would survive for a plunge into the ocean. Of course, there is always the risk of error and the rapidly falling ISS landing instead in a populated area.
Another option is to send the ISS into a higher orbit where it could be used to support commercial space exploration. This idea could extend the station's lifespan by another 100 years. Such a plan would first require the ISS to come closer to earth, causing possible interference with, or damage to, a growing number of satellites. Then, a special booster would need to be built and attached to the ISS to lift it 500 miles higher than its current orbit. Again, this ascension could wreak havoc on satellites already in place.
Finally, others have suggested a combination of the first two. By dividing the ISS into several modules, some could be de-orbited and destroyed, while others could be preserved for additional research or in support of commercial space travel. It might be interesting to see what Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Richard Branson would pay for a used space vehicle.
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