Building a Spacecraft to Deorbit ISS ‘Not Optional,’ Claims NASA Safety Panel

Building a Spacecraft to Deorbit ISS ‘Not Optional,’ Claims NASA Safety Panel

A safety panel highlighted the urgency of safely deorbiting the International Space Station (ISS) after it retires in 2030, warning of a catastrophe if the spacecraft were to make an uncontrolled reentry through Earth’s atmosphere.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) urged the space agency to develop a space tug to deorbit the ISS, saying that the deorbit vehicle is “not optional,” according to Space Policy Online.

“The day will inevitably come when the Station is at the end of its life—and we may not be able to dictate that day—it is inconceivable to allow the Station to deorbit in an uncontrolled manner,” ASAP Chair Patricia Sanders said during a briefing at the panel’s third quarter meeting on Thursday. The ISS is “simply too massive and would pose extreme hazard to populations over a broad area of Earth. This needs to be resourced and resourced now if we are to avert a catastrophe.”

The ISS is set to retire in seven years. In order to deorbit the space station in a safe manner, NASA suggested a space tug concept to lower the orbit of the ISS such that it can reenter and burn up through Earth’s atmosphere. The space agency called for a “new spacecraft design or modification to an existing spacecraft that must function on its first flight and have sufficient redundancy and anomaly recovery capability to continue the critical deorbit burn.” NASA had previously suggested using Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft to deorbit the ISS, but it’s not clear whether that is still a viable option.

The development of the proposed space tug was allocated $US180 million as part of NASA’s proposed 2024 budget request and the space agency put out a request for proposals from private space companies in the U.S. to come up with a design. However, NASA is anticipating budget cuts due to the fiscal responsibility act, which was signed into law in June, which could affect the plans for a deorbiting space tug.

In response, Sanders noted that NASA will have to make “difficult choices” if Congress were to cut its funding while emphasizing that the deorbit vehicle is one of the “few areas that are not discretionary,” Space Police Online reported. In October of last year, ASAP also urged NASA to develop a deorbit plan for the ISS that can be immediately executed in case there is an emergency.

The ISS measures 357 feet (108 meters) across, which is the size of a football field. If it were left to deorbit uncontrollably, it could pose a major risk if it were to reenter and fall on populated areas below.

In 1979, the United States’ first space station Skylab descended towards Earth in an uncontrolled reentry that saw parts of it land on populated areas in western Australia. Engineers were attempting to steer the space station towards reentry in the Indian Ocean, but some fragments still made their way onto land.

Later in 1991, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station also made an uncontrolled tumble towards Earth, breaking up over Argentina. Luckily, no one was injured in both incidents, but they serve as a reminder of the damage that could ensue if the space station was left to come back down to Earth on its own.

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