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Monday, January 17, 2022

Destroy in orbit or burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere: how the life of the ISS will end

The ISS is planned to be disabled in 2028, but NASA believes that this is a short time and it is not enough to complete all space experiments, so the agency wants to extend the operation of the ISS for at least the next 10 years. The station is already being destroyed and it is not known what will happen to it by 2031. Hi-tech decided to figure out what the future holds for the ISS.

Depressurization, fire and death of the crew – all this can happen if a depressurization occurs on the ISS and it fails. NASA has already figured out what to do with the station when it stops working. But things may not go according to plan.

What is the current state of the ISS?

In 2021, it became known about several malfunctions on the ISS at once. For example, in August, deep cavities were found on the station windows. This can affect the tightness of seven out of twenty windows.

Back in the same month, blind cracks were found on the Russian module of the station. As Vladimir Solovyov, the general designer of the Energia rocket and space corporation, said at the time, this is not a point problem: all the systems of the Russian segment of the ISS are now at a high degree of wear and tear. As of August 2021, 80% of the Zvezda module systems have gone beyond the warranty period.

A couple of months later, in October, one of the docking stations stopped working due to cracks. Now it is unsafe to use it, since the transition chamber of the Zvezda module is not hermetically sealed.

How are problems with the station solved?

So far, there is no alternative for the ISS: specialists work at the station and are still carrying out important international projects, for example, studying the level of radiation and testing equipment.

Therefore, they are trying to repair and maintain the station in working order. In September 2021, NASA said it was working with various partners to confirm the station’s ability to operate for at least another 10 years and ensure a better use of the ISS.

Also, there are cracks on the ISS that can creep: they are trying to be repaired using a flexible disk made of rubber, aluminum foil and other materials. But the properties of tired metal can be restored only by remelting. Thus, it is necessary to completely replace the entire body of the ISS emergency module, and this is impossible, said Alexander Semyonov, head of the Department of Physical Electronics and Technology at ETU LETI.

What to do with the ISS next?

Several years ago, NASA published a couple of scenarios of how the ISS would be de-orbited. With an ideal development of events, first the entire crew will return to Earth, and then the station with the help of special computer systems will be de-orbited and sent into the Earth’s atmosphere – there the ISS will burn up and collapse.

From the entire station, 16% of the volume may remain, this is from 17 to 57 tons. They will fall to Earth in the uninhabited region of the Pacific Ocean, the fall zone of debris up to 6,000 km. According to NASA, this procedure will take no more than two years and will cost $ 950 million.

And what if everything goes wrong and the ISS suddenly completely fails?

According to NASA, the agency has foreseen an emergency deorbiting situation. For example, if there was a collision with a micrometeorite, orbital debris, or other unforeseen events.

In this case, NASA employees use all the fuel that is on the ISS to perform a similar maneuver and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Then the debris of the station can reach residential areas. NASA notes that parts of the ISS will land in an area of ​​12 thousand km. A similar distance lies between Los Angeles and Sydney.

The agency also assessed the likelihood of an unforeseen event in which it would be necessary to urgently evacuate the crew. For example, during every six months, the ISS may collide with a micrometeorite or space debris, which will lead to depressurization, with a probability of 1 in 120, in case of a fire – 1 in 46 thousand.

Collision and depressurization is one of the most likely cases that can happen to the ISS. Then the station must be de-orbited as early as possible, since the systems necessary for this are located in the pressurized Russian segment and will be in service only 180 days after such an accident.

It is not yet known if the ISS has enough fuel to make an emergency deorbiting. Now NASA is checking the performance of the station for the analysis of equipment, as well as updating the software and OS. There is no information yet about whether the required conditions were provided in order to carry out the deorbiting procedure in an emergency. If this is the case, then the station remains vulnerable to abnormal events.

Which stations have already been de-orbited?

This happened with the Mir station: such a decision was made following the results of several emergency situations. During the experiment on manual docking, the Progress M-34 spacecraft crashed into the Spektr module, in which a hole was formed. There was also a fire at the station, it was extinguished, but this event had its consequences. For several months, the cosmonauts had to live at temperatures over + 40 C, breathe ethylene glycol vapors and restore equipment to ensure that no depressurization occurs.

The work of the crew helped save the station for subsequent work for another four years. But later on “Mir” important systems began to fail and the situation with the collision of modules could be repeated, so it was decided to take it out of orbit.

In March 2001, the Progress spacecraft docked to the station to give Mir an impulse and direct it towards the Earth. The operation was successful: the wreckage of the device did not damage anything and fell into the Pacific Ocean.

The situation with the ISS cannot be called unambiguous, while large space agencies are fighting to extend its life, news of another malfunction on board the station comes. NASA has published a report on what they are going to do with the ISS in the future, but there is no information if everything is ready for an emergency. Previously, there was already a successful experience in de-orbiting the Mir station, but the events that took place on board before its sinking could cost the astronauts their lives.


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