Skip to main content

NASA is seeking help to crash the space station at the end of its life

The International Space Station (ISS) is set to be decommissioned in 2031, at which point it will have spent three decades orbiting Earth.

But NASA doesn’t want to leave the 356-foot-long (109-meter) facility drifting in orbit as it would add to the growing amount of hazardous space junk already in low-Earth orbit and would risk creating even more if it collided with another object.

To ensure its safe destruction, the space agency will use a so-called “space tug,” officially known as the U.S. Deorbit Vehicle (USDV), to guide the ISS to a safe position whereupon it will descend at speed and mostly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. However, some parts could survive the rapid descent, and so the deorbit maneuver must be carefully planned and executed to eliminate the possibility of any chunks of the ISS landing on a populated area.

In preparation, NASA recently called for proposals for a new space tug design — or modification to an existing spacecraft — to assist with the crucial deorbiting maneuver, adding that the selected design is expected to take years to develop, test, and certify.

According to comments made in March by Kathy Lueders, the then chief of NASA’s human spaceflight program, the final cost of the tug could reach almost $1 billion.

NASA and its partners had been considering using a Russian Progress spacecraft to carry out the deorbiting operation, but it’s now been decided that a new spacecraft solution would provide more robust capabilities for what NASA described as a “responsible” deorbit.

The U.S., Japan, Canada, and the participating countries of ESA (European Space Agency) have committed to operating the orbital outpost through 2030, while  Russia will keep cosmonauts on board through at least 2028.

Designing, building, and deploying the ISS pushed engineering innovation to the limit and promoted both scientific research and international cooperation. But the structure’s aging design is starting to show, and maintenance is becoming increasingly challenging in the face of rising costs.

With NASA keen to maintain a human presence off-Earth, the agency is tapping a number of private companies that have ambitions to deploy their own space stations in the coming years.

Editors' Recommendations

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Watch SpaceX’s Crew Dragon take one of its shortest journeys on Thursday
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft docked at the ISS.

Four International Space Station (ISS) crew members will climb aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on Thursday and take it on a very short journey.

The plan is for NASA astronauts Matt Dominick, Mike Barratt, and Jeanette Epps, along with Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Grebenkin, to relocate the Crew Dragon to a different port to make way for Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which is set to fly its first astronauts when it launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday, May 6, before arriving at the ISS on Wednesday, May 8.

Read more
China’s space station was hit by space junk
China's Tiangong space station shown from above.

China's Tiangong space station shown from above. CMSA

Crew members aboard China’s space station have successfully completed repairs after a debris strike caused a partial power failure at the facility, officials of the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) revealed at a press conference on Wednesday.

Read more
Junk from the ISS fell on a house in the U.S., NASA confirms
The International Space Station.

A regular stanchion (left) and the one recovered from the NASA flight support equipment used to mount International Space Station batteries on a cargo pallet. The recovered stanchion survived reentry through Earth’s atmosphere on March 8, 2024, and impacted a home in Florida. NASA

When Alejandro Otero’s son called him on March 8 to say that something had crashed through the roof of their home, he initially thought it might have been a meteorite.

Read more