NASA releases updated plan to de-orbit the International Space Station by the end of 2030

This mosaic depicts the International Space Station pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a fly around of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: NASA.

NASA has published an update to its International Space Station (ISS) Transition Report which outlines how the ISS partners could safely de-orbit the space station with a debris footprint over the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area.

Having made the decisions that the ISS is not sustainable beyond 2030 NASA released the International Space Station Transition Report this past Monday. It outlines the coming decade of use and the nominal scenario to de-orbit the ISS.

“In the nominal scenario, ISS mission control will begin scheduling retrograde (rather than posigrade) ISS maneuvers in the lead-up to ISS deorbit to begin slowly lowering the operational altitude of the ISS. Figure 4 shows that these retrograde maneuvers may start at different times depending on solar cycle activity and its effect on Earth’s atmosphere (higher solar activity tends to expand the Earth’s atmosphere and increase resistance to the ISS’ velocity, resulting in more drag and natural altitude loss). This lower altitude results in higher velocity overall. Eventually, after performing maneuvers to line up the final target ground track and debris footprint over the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), the area around Point Nemo, ISS operators will perform the ISS re-entry burn, providing the final push to lower ISS as much as possible and ensure safe atmospheric entry.”

ISS End-of-life De-orbit Planning Assumptions. This figure shows shows the ISS end-of-life de-orbit altitude, cargo resupply, and de-orbit plan assumptions. This timeline assumption is reflected in the budget discussion above for de-orbit vehicle procurement. Credit: NASA.
ISS End-of-life De-orbit Planning Assumptions. This figure shows shows the ISS end-of-life de-orbit altitude, cargo resupply, and de-orbit plan assumptions. This timeline assumption is reflected in the budget discussion above for de-orbit vehicle procurement. Credit: NASA.

“The ISS will accomplish the de-orbit maneuvers by using the propulsion capabilities of the ISS and its visiting vehicles. The overall de-orbit would require extra visiting vehicles beyond the regular cadence of traffic to the ISS. Not all visiting vehicles can be used to assist in the de-orbit. NASA and its partners have evaluated varying quantities of Russian Progress spacecraft and determined that three can accomplish the de-orbit. Additionally, Northrop Grumman has been expanding the propulsion capabilities of its Cygnus spacecraft, and NASA has been evaluating whether Cygnus could also be part of the vehicle capability needed to the de-orbit the ISS.”

Enter the Commercial Space Stations

To replace the ISS NASA intends to rely on the private sector through its Commercial LEO Destinations (CLDs) program. What does that mean for Canada? We recently wrote about this very topic in our story “What’s next for Canada after the International Space Station is decommissioned.”

With respect to NASA’s plan to rely on U.S. commercial space industry they provided the following information.

Goals through 2030:

  • Create a robust commercial LEO marketplace by enabling the development of commercially- owned and -operated LEO destinations and associated research capabilities that are safe, reliable, and cost-effective and allow NASA to be one of many customers;
  • Ensure NASA can meet its needs in LEO, as it transitions from ISS operations to new CLDs that are commercially-owned and -operated;
  • Drive down costs so NASA can free resources to be used for future human space exploration on its Artemis missions to the Moon and on to Mars as well as on other missions; and
  • Utilize innovative, nontraditional arrangements for acquiring commercial space goods and services to meet NASA requirements.

Implementation Strategies through 2030:

  • Support the development of CLDs through the Commercial LEO Development Program supply strategy;
  • Create research/applications roadmaps for promising areas and develop strategies and partnerships to advance activities on roadmaps; continue demand stimulation activities for in- space production activities, partnering with other Government agencies to co-fund areas of intersecting interests;
  • Continue using ISS to grow commercial interest and markets by facilitating commercial activities, including Private Astronaut Missions; and
  • Use or create expanded procurement approaches to drive the transition of Government purchasing towards procurement of commercial services, including research facilities on CLDs.

The Post-ISS Plan:

  • One or more CLDs are available to meet forecasted needs;
  • Cost of LEO services to NASA is significantly reduced;
  • Commercial demand for tourism, in-space manufacturing, and other activities supplements business for CLDs beyond U.S. Government needs; and
  • Multiple commercial crew and cargo transportation and research capability providers exist.

Read or download the International Space Station (ISS) Transition Report

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About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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