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What will happen to the International Space Station when it is retired?

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The International Space Station. Photo: NASA

The International Space Station is seen from NASA space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation in space on May 29, 2011.
Image credit: NASA

Updated February 3, 2022 at 10:08 AM ET

Operations at the International Space Station are expected to wind down at the end of the decade, when NASA will crash it in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, the space agency announced this week.

The ISS will continue to conduct research and develop technology through 2030 while NASA works on transitioning the capabilities of the station to commercially owned and operated entities.

“Things get old in space. Things start to show their age. There have been some cracks discovered that were letting air out, causing leaks. That sort of stuff happens,” Mike Wall, a senior space writer for Space.com, told NPR.

According to the transition report sent to Congress, NASA operators will direct the ISS toward a region in the Pacific Ocean called the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area – specifically around Point Nemo – in early 2031, when it will reenter the atmosphere and crash into the water.

“It’s the safest place to bring down a big spacecraft that’s reached the end of its life,” Wall added. “It’s pretty big, you know, it’s as long as a football field.”

Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement that the plan sent to Congress will ensure a “smooth transition” to commercial space entities after the ISS goes offline.

Using private sector space companies will allow NASA to purchase “only the goods and services the agency needs” in the future, the agency said. Wall also noted that it will free up NASA to focus on more challenging goals, such as sending people to Mars.

The first ISS crew – made up of NASA Astronaut Bill Shepherd and cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev – took up residence on the station in 2000, more than two decades ago.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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