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SpaceX awarded NASA contract to deorbit ISS

SpaceX awarded NASA contract to deorbit ISS

NASA deorbit

NASA has selected SpaceX to safely deorbit the International Space Station (ISS) at the end of its operational life. The contract, valued at up to $843 million, tasks the California-based company with designing and building a vehicle to guide the 430-tonne orbiting platform into the Pacific Ocean in the early 2030s. The ISS, a collaborative project involving the US, Russia, Europe, Canada, and Japan, has been a pivotal platform for scientific research since its launch in 1998.

It has hosted thousands of experiments, contributing to fields ranging from human aging to new materials. While the ISS remains structurally sound, plans for its eventual disposal are necessary to avoid an uncontrolled reentry, which could pose risks to people on the ground. Ken Bowersox, NASA’s director of space operations, emphasized the importance of having a controlled deorbit plan to ensure a safe end to the station’s mission and support future commercial endeavors in low Earth orbit.

Various options for the station’s future were considered, including disassembly for parts or transfer to a commercial entity.

SpaceX tasked with controlled ISS deorbit

However, these options come with legal, complexity, and cost challenges.

Details about SpaceX’s deorbiting vehicle, often referred to as a “space tug,” have not been disclosed. Given the ISS’s substantial mass and size, comparable to a football field, the vehicle will need significant thrust to direct it into the right reentry path. The decommissioning plan involves letting the ISS orbit decay naturally over time.

Once the crew is removed, the space tug will execute the final deorbit maneuver, targeting a remote Pacific Ocean location known as Point Nemo, the spacecraft graveyard situated over 2,500 km from the nearest land. As the ISS nears its end, NASA and its partners are focusing on future projects, including the construction of a new platform called Gateway that will orbit the Moon. They also hope that by the time the ISS is decommissioned, private companies will have launched their own space stations, ensuring the continued presence of humans and scientific research in low Earth orbit.

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This decision signifies a new chapter in space exploration, paving the way for commercial space ventures while marking the controlled end of a significant era in space research and international cooperation.

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