NASA Details Its Plan for the End of the International Space Station in 2031

NASA says it plans to plunge the vestiges of the International Space Station into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean known as Point Nemo in early 2031, after passing the baton to commercial space stations.

In an updated transition report just delivered to Congress, the space agency detailed the endgame for the space station, which has been hosting international crews continuously since the year 2000 — and hinted at what its astronauts would be doing in low Earth orbit after its fiery destruction.

“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth-orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial space, said in a news release. “We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space.”

The updated report comes a month after NASA announced the Biden administration’s decision to extend the station’s operating lifetime from 2024 to 2030. NASA says its portion of the space station should be structurally sound at least that long. Meanwhile, Russian space officials are continuing to assess how their part of the station is holding up, with special attention being given to an air leak in the Russian-built Zvezda service module.

NASA said the members of the 15-nation space station partnership would work together “to ensure there is no threat to the long-term viability of the ISS.” At the same time, the report acknowledged that the station can’t last forever.

In December, NASA awarded a total of $415.6 million to three commercial teams — headed by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman — to start working on concepts for commercial space stations suitable for low Earth orbit, or LEO. Yet another company, Axiom Space, is already building a commercial module for the ISS that’s meant eventually to become the springboard for a stand-alone space station.

NASA expects to select at least one commercial space station project in 2025 to be certified to host its astronauts for future missions.

Some of the space station’s modules could be split off to become part of other orbital outposts during the transition. The report lays out a plan for shifting operations to those new outposts and gradually lowering the orbit of the old station’s remaining modules during the latter half of the 2020s, building up to a climax in 2030.

NASA’s current scenario calls for three Russian-built Progress supply spacecraft to fire their thrusters while docked to the station for a months-long deorbit operation. Other spacecraft, perhaps including Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo ship, might also play a part.

A crew would be aboard the station for the initial months of the deorbit operation, but the latter stages would be executed remotely after the last crew’s departure, toward the end of 2030.

Ground controllers would manage the station’s descent so that the final, fiery plunge through the atmosphere occurred in early 2031 over a “spacecraft cemetery” known as the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area.

Point Nemo — a spot that’s situated between New Zealand and the coast of Chile, 1,670 miles away from the nearest speck of land — would be the target point for falling debris. Hundreds of defunct spacecraft, including Russia’s Mir space station, have previously been ditched in that isolated part of the Pacific.

The report made clear that after the International Space Station’s destruction, NASA expects to be one of many customers pursuing research, training, tourism and media projects in low Earth orbit.

“By the early 2030s, NASA plans to purchase crew time for at least two – and possibly more – NASA crew members per year aboard [commercial LEO destinations] to continue basic microgravity research, applied biomedical research, and ongoing exploration technology development and human research,” the report said.

By 2033, NASA expects to save roughly $1.75 billion a year thanks to the transition to commercial LEO operations. Those savings are likely to be earmarked for more ambitious missions that send astronauts beyond Earth orbit — to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Lead image: The International Space Station stretches out in an image captured by astronauts aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly-around survey in November 2021. Credit: NASA

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

Recent Posts

A new LEGO Spacecraft to Vote for: China's Long March 5 With the Tianwen-1 That Flew to Mars

Two Lego designers with a history of space-themed projects have teamed up for a new…

2 hours ago

One Star Flies Past the Milky Way’s Black Hole at 3% the Speed of Light

There's a population of stars in the heart of our galaxy whipping around Sagittarius A*…

12 hours ago

It Would Take About 100 Billion Years for Another Star to Pass Close Enough to Make the Solar System Unstable

A new study by a team of Canadian researchers shows that our Solar System will…

19 hours ago

Mars Rovers Will Need to Dig Deeper If They Want to Find Evidence of Life

The search for life—even ancient life—on Mars is trickier than we thought. In a recent…

2 days ago

LHC Scientists Find Three Exotic Particles — and Start Hunting for More

Physicists say they've found evidence in data from Europe's Large Hadron Collider for three never-before-seen…

2 days ago

SpaceX Shares an Image of the Super Heavy Booster Bristling With 33 Newly Installed Raptor Engines

SpaceX has released new images that show the Starship and Superheavy prototypes with all their…

2 days ago