What will happen when the ISS is decommissioned?

What will become of this massive space station at the end of its life?


Asked by Carol Gleason

It seems like a bit of a waste after all the time spent building it, but current plans call for the International Space Station to be decommissioned in 2020, just eight years from now. However, it’s worth noting that this is still an extension of five years on the station’s originally planned lifespan.

Unfortunately as the largest object so far put in orbit around Earth, the 420-ton ISS presents a major threat if its orbit is allowed to deteriorate unmanaged. “After the ISS completes its mission, we’ll have to sink it,” declared Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of the Russian space agency Roskosmos, in 2011. “It can’t be left in orbit because it’s too complex and heavy. It could produce a lot of junk.” Such debris could either remain in orbit, presenting a threat to future satellites and spacecraft, or crash to Earth, potentially surviving re-entry to the atmosphere and threatening people on the surface. The most likely way of doing this will be to send up one of the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicles or another unmanned ferry spacecraft, equipped with enough fuel to push the station into a planned re-entry, most likely over the Pacific Ocean.

Answered by astronomy and space author Giles Sparrow

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