This is one of the most iconic pieces of space hardware in history, but the days of the International Space Station are now officially numbered. NASA has announced that in 2031 the curtain will finally fall on the ISS. An orbital outpost the size of a football field will be decommissioned, brought to Earth, and then splashed down in the remote Pacific Ocean.
Why is the ISS retired and what will happen to it?
The ISS has a rich history. It has been permanently occupied since November 2000, when astronaut crews rotated for six months. A place to test out how to live in space for a few months while it's still relatively safe on Earth. The lessons humans have learned from living in microgravity have given NASA the confidence to return to the Moon at the end of this decade and then go to Mars.
However, like everything in life, nothing can last forever. Last September, Russia warned that at least 80 percent of their ISS sites had on-board systems that had expired. Cracks began to appear in the Zarya cargo module. There was also a series of air leaks in the crew quarters.
This structural fatigue is one of the reasons why the ISS will be freed in 2030 and deorbited next year. NASA made the plan official in January when they released an updated report on the transition to the International Space Station.
With eight years left before the last crew leaves, the focus will now shift. The past few years have seen a growing collaboration between publicly funded space agencies like NASA and private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX.
The rest of the 2020s will see growing commercialization of the ISS with habitable modules available to private space travelers. In December 2024, a six-meter-wide film studio called Space Entertainment Enterprise-1 (SEE-1) is due to launch. It will be a place where Hollywood blockbusters will be filmed in zero gravity, and Tom Cruise is widely known to film there.
Next comes the hardest part: what to do with it. Leaving it in space would be very dangerous. The ISS is the largest object in Earth's orbit after the Moon. If a piece of space debris were to hit it, it would create a debris flow that would threaten our entire satellite infrastructure in low Earth orbit.
Thus, the ISS will join many other decommissioned spacecraft in a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean. It will crash into what is known as Point Nemo, or the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. Located between New Zealand and South America, it is 2688 kilometers from the nearest land. So falling debris poses very little danger to humans.