If it's not carefully retired, there could be "catastrophe."
The International Space Station will soon need to be retired, having long outlasted its intended lifespan of 15 years — and NASA is getting deadly serious about taking it down.
At a briefing on Thursday, the space agency's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) called plans to build a specialized "space tug" to deorbit the station "not optional," fearing human casualties on the ground should it make an uncontrolled re-entry into the atmosphere.
"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," said ASAP Chair Patricia Sanders at the briefing, as quoted by Space Policy Online.
"[The station] is simply too massive and would pose extreme hazard to populations over a broad area of Earth," she added. "This needs to be resourced and resourced now if we are to avert a catastrophe."
Deorbiting spacecraft is nothing new for NASA, but the hefty size of the ISS poses a bigger risk and demands greater precision. At 358 feet from end to end, it's easily large enough to crush an entire stadium, that is, if it were to make it through the atmosphere in one piece.
NASA has said that it wants to retire the ISS by 2030, and its plan to accomplish that is using a space tug that will nudge the station into the atmosphere, where it will begin to burn up during re-entry and fall over a remote part of the ocean called Point Nemo.
To "initiate developing" the tug, NASA said it's allocated around $180 million. Actually building it, however, could cost up to an eye-watering $1 billion.
To account for those costs, NASA has asked for a budget boost to $27.2 billion for next year, but the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 signed by President Joe Biden in June means that the space agency will likely suffer budget cuts.
Sanders said if those cuts come through, NASA will have to make "difficult choices," but stressed that the space tug is one of the "few areas that are not discretionary," per Space Policy Online.
Previously, NASA floated the idea of using Russia's already existing Progress spacecraft, which regularly resupplies the station, to perform the deorbiting.
But, given the firm support that ASAP has just thrown behind the space tug plan, it sounds like NASA is dead set on retiring the ISS all on its own — with or without its desired budget.
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