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NASA Plans To De-Orbit ISS In 2016 554

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the everybody-duck dept.
NewbieV writes "The international space station is by far the largest spacecraft ever built by earthlings. Circling the Earth every 90 minutes, it often passes over North America and is visible from the ground when night has fallen but the station, up high, is still bathed in sunlight. After more than a decade of construction, it is nearing completion and finally has a full crew of six astronauts. The last components should be installed by the end of next year. And then? 'In the first quarter of 2016, we'll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,' says NASA's space station program manager, Michael T. Suffredini."
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NASA Plans To De-Orbit ISS In 2016

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  • It'll never happen (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 7of7 (956694) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:03AM (#28675649) Journal
    NASA is terrible with arbitrary deadlines. Remember how the Mars rovers were only supposed to work for 90 days? They've been at it for years now. The date will be pushed back over and over again.
    • by haifastudent (1267488) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:28AM (#28676005)

      NASA is terrible with arbitrary deadlines.

      I agree, but for a different reason. This is a way to get the public involved (read: outraged) and secure funding. I hope it works.

    • by mcvos (645701) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:40AM (#28676181)

      NASA is terrible with arbitrary deadlines. Remember how the Mars rovers were only supposed to work for 90 days? They've been at it for years now. The date will be pushed back over and over again.

      I hope you're right, but de-orbiting the ISS is a somewhat different matter than a Mars rover breaking down. You can't predict when a breakdown occurs, and as long as it doesn't, it's cheap to keep using it.

      De-orbiting the ISS is an active choice, however. It's expensive to keep manned and operational. I suppose they could simply abandon it and leave it up there, but it's going to come down eventually. If I understand correctly, its orbit is so low that it experiences drag from Earth's atmosphere, which means it regularly needs a boost, and therefore fuel. I guess they prefer to have it come down in a controlled manner, so nobody gets hit on the head with the thing.

      (I may have started by expressing the hope that the ISS stays up there for a while, but I'm not at all sure that's a good idea. Critics say it's a waste of money with no scientific value whatsoever. So why did we put it up there in the first place? Shouldn't we be figuring out how to mine asteroids instead?)

      • by Bakkster (1529253) <Bakkster.man@gm a i l . com> on Monday July 13, 2009 @11:02AM (#28676553)

        De-orbiting the ISS is an active choice, however. It's expensive to keep manned and operational. I suppose they could simply abandon it and leave it up there, but it's going to come down eventually. If I understand correctly, its orbit is so low that it experiences drag from Earth's atmosphere, which means it regularly needs a boost, and therefore fuel. I guess they prefer to have it come down in a controlled manner, so nobody gets hit on the head with the thing.

        Yes, the ISS has no engines and will fall out of the sky eventually, much like Skylab. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station#Altitude_control [wikipedia.org]

        (I may have started by expressing the hope that the ISS stays up there for a while, but I'm not at all sure that's a good idea. Critics say it's a waste of money with no scientific value whatsoever. So why did we put it up there in the first place? Shouldn't we be figuring out how to mine asteroids instead?)

        You could say the same thing about Hubble, the Mars Rovers, Cassini, LHC, etc. My guess is to why we hear less about ISS science is that it's harder to write in a pop-culture headline. At least with the others you get pretty pictures or the ability to wildly extrapolate (liquid water, therefor aliens) or fear-monger (black holes sound scary, microscopic ones must be even more frightening). Zero gravity is so 1990, so regardless of how useful the research, your average person not interested in science will not care, and thus think it's a waste. You just can't pitch the importance to them.

        There's no other location where we can do long-term scientific research in zero gravity, so we would do well to keep the ISS if we plan to keep learning from it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Joce640k (829181)

          It would be much cooler to add engines to it and send it off into space. Maybe even use one of the to-be-trashed shuttles for the job.

          For me, they could trash it tomorrow and divert the money they save into building more rovers to visit all the planets ... and especially some for the moon to check out the He3 content.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by mcvos (645701)

          Yes, the ISS has no engines and will fall out of the sky eventually, much like Skylab. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station#Altitude_control [wikipedia.org]

          Have you read that link? It says the ISS does have engines, which it needs regularly to stop from dropping out of the sky. The idea of a plasma drive on the ISS so it's cheaper to keep it up there is an interesting one.

          (I may have started by expressing the hope that the ISS stays up there for a while, but I'm not at all sure that's a good idea. Critics say it's a waste of money with no scientific value whatsoever. So why did we put it up there in the first place? Shouldn't we be figuring out how to mine asteroids instead?)

          You could say the same thing about Hubble, the Mars Rovers, Cassini, LHC, etc.

          I could but won't. Hubble has let us look further than ever before. Sure it's an expensive telescope with its share of problems, but the lack of atmosphere matters a lot. The Mars Rovers were quite cheap, especially

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Dr. Spork (142693)

          You could say the same thing about Hubble, the Mars Rovers, Cassini, LHC, etc.

          Bullshit. All of those project significantly advanced human knowledge (or are about to - if we learn as little from the LHC as we did from the ISS, it will be called the most miserable failure in all of science).

          Face it, the ISS was a make-work project for NASA. It was not a tool designed to teach us something we wanted to know. When it crashes to Earth, science will barely notice.

          • Learned nothing? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by pentalive (449155) on Monday July 13, 2009 @01:23PM (#28679127) Journal

            With ISS we learned how to build larger structures in space.
            We learned how to work together with other countries to build modules that must fit together "airtight" and must pass through the 'eye of the needle' shuttle cargo bay to get installed.
            We are learning how to make a space station more and more self sufficient. (here have a nice cup of cold 'water')

          • by Chris Burke (6130) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:09PM (#28680889) Homepage

            Face it, the ISS was a make-work project for NASA. It was not a tool designed to teach us something we wanted to know. When it crashes to Earth, science will barely notice.

            No, it was a make-work project for multiple space agencies around the globe, working in concert on a complex project. Science may have had little use for it, but what was accomplished in terms of international cooperation is really quite impressive. Cooperation on major space projects -- between former arch-rivals no less -- is an important step in the history of space exploration and something we'd have to deal with eventually. ISS did in fact teach us something we wanted to know.

            However, this aspect of the ISS has already been accomplished and just maintaining the status quo, while a challenge in and of itself, isn't particularly useful. So, much as I might like to keep it just for 'cool' factor, I too won't be especially sad to see it go.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Lumpy (12016)

        ISS is modular, short of a major problem (like modules breaking in 1/2 there is no reason to deorbit the whole damn thing. This is not like the one-big-chunk (tm) that skylab was.

  • luckily for us (Score:3, Insightful)

    by markringen (1501853) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:04AM (#28675665)
    luckily for us Nasa doesn't decide anything!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:04AM (#28675667)

    Isn't really permanent, eh?

  • WTF? (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:07AM (#28675707)

    I don't get it...

    1. Build ISS
    2. Deorbit...
    .
    .
    .
    X. Profit?!?!

    • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SydShamino (547793) on Monday July 13, 2009 @11:43AM (#28677305)

      The profit was for the contractors, and occurred at step 1...

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:07AM (#28675711)
    ... to say when or if it should be destroyed.

    The first word in it's title is "International" and a lot of countries have put a lot of money into building it. Maybe they would like to start getting some returns on their payments now that it's finally almost finished, rather than having one single country decide that just because they're bored with it the whole thing should be crashed into the sea.

    • by SkankinMonkey (528381) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:09AM (#28675745)
      I believe NASA was given control of its decommissioning when the countries established the ISS charter.
      • by RobBebop (947356) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:20AM (#28675895) Homepage Journal

        I know NASA (and inherently the USA) has put more money than all the other nations involved (possibly combined) into the ISS.

        Nonetheless, I think this is an example of a political maneuver to get those in charge of the money to wake up and realize that NASA has two huge projects on it's hands that need funding. Between ISS and Constellation, the NASA budget needs a bump or both of these will end up in the doldrums because of underfunding.

        Remember at the end of Apollo when missions 18, 19, and 20 transitioned to Project Skylab? I think resolving what to do with ISS will be a matter of figuring out a new function for it to serve in the 20's and 30's. Hell... I'd like to see them tether it to a geosynchronous orbit and convert the thing into a space elevator to reduce the cost of energy needed to send 1 kg of material into space to less than $10k.

  • Why not preserve it? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bbasgen (165297) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:08AM (#28675723) Homepage
    I don't fully understand why useful objects in space are discarded into the atmosphere. Isn't it feasible to send them into space, either in an extremely high orbit or just give it enough inertia to keep traveling in open space? Is it really not worth the time/fuel/effort? It seems odd that we can't keep a consistent, physical presence in space.
    • by The_mad_linguist (1019680) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:11AM (#28675779)

      Because it's less hazardous for future space missions to clear them out of orbit while we still can, rather than having to track new orbiting material.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Candid88 (1292486)

        That makes no sense at all.

        There's tons of man-made waste discarded in space. From big pieces of Saturn V rockets to small pieces of smashed up Chinese satellite.

        So NASA and and friends aren't too bothered about leaving useless bits of metal in space, but a multi-billion dollar space station of obvious advantage to future manned space flight must be destroyed?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Guysmiley777 (880063)
      It takes a huge, huge, huge amount of energy to boost a kilogram in LEO out of the Earth's gravity well compared to how much energy it takes to deorbit that same kilogram.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jafiwam (310805)
      Escape velocity is approximately twice orbital velocity. * So, the ISS would need to have the booster equivalent of all the stuff they have up there COMBINED times two to get into Solar orbit as opposed to Earth orbit.

      Even then, you aren't getting too far out of Earth orbit and run the risk of dropping the thing back from an unpredictable orbit some time over the next centuries.

      So, no, it's not economical in any way shape or form to escape them, and it could be dangerous.

      Deorbiting into the Pacific (which
  • W.T.F. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by chebucto (992517) * on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:09AM (#28675743) Homepage

    From wikipedia:

    On-orbit construction of the station began in 1998 and is scheduled to be complete by 2011, with operations continuing until at least 2015. In the first quarter of 2016 unless there is a change in policy ... the space station will be de-orbited.

    So, 13 years of construction and four years of (full-capacity) operation. This sets the standard for white elephants. As far as I'm concerned, they should either de-orbit it now and stop throwing good money after bad, or keep it up there for a lot longer, if only to do experiments on long-term living in space.

    • Re:W.T.F. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anubis IV (1279820) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:19AM (#28675875)
      Of course, you're discounting the fact that they've been able to do experiments and science up there in it for over a decade already. It's not as if those last four years will be more valuable than all of the previous years combined. I'd imagine that a significantly greater quantity of research of greater importance would have been carried out in those first thirteen years, as compared to the last four years, given the newness of the station and the length of time it was in use.
      • Re:W.T.F. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by A beautiful mind (821714) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:30AM (#28676055)
        Not to mention the fact that the ISS is not so much a station, but a learning experiment on how to construct and run a space station. Think of all the subtle things, like the problems they had with toilets and so on...
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by haifastudent (1267488)

        Of course, you're discounting the fact that they've been able to do experiments and science up there in it for over a decade already. It's not as if those last four years will be more valuable than all of the previous years combined. I'd imagine that a significantly greater quantity of research of greater importance would have been carried out in those first thirteen years, as compared to the last four years, given the newness of the station and the length of time it was in use.

        Wrong, almost no manned science has been happening on the ISS so far, only automated experiments (and no manufacturing). This is because the ship needs a three-person crew to run it. Only now, with six astronauts, is there crew available for science.

  • Of course, they have to bring it down , so they can get a new budget, or keep the old one, and then resend the new ISS up to space, instead of reusing/recycling parts, have a full forge up there, so you can melt down steel to then reshape it, etc...

    There has to be many ways of doing certain things, even if we leave it up there and start building a second newer version, then the newer version with its smelt, can add to itself by taking apart the old one, and so on, and so on...sort of like the replicators fr

  • Next stop... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scubamage (727538) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:10AM (#28675761)
    ...space port? Imagine it, we build a space port in geosynchronous orbit. It would decrease the necessity to have massive quantities of fuel expended for vehicles to reach orbital velocity since you'd already be at speed at launch time. They could plan for modularized spacecraft, and then simply deliver them to the port for construction and deployment. If a space elevator were ever to be built, it could serve as the end linkage. There are a ton of possibilities, and I think its ultimately where we're headed. So why not swing for the stars (no pun intended)?
    • Re:Next stop... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ctetc007 (875050) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:30AM (#28676057) Homepage
      Actually, the fuel spent would be the same (if not more) because it had to be spent to get the spacecraft components and fuel up to that altitude. The same spacecraft mass is still going to the same place, so the same amount of energy is being expended. It could actually be more because these components are being brought up in other launch vehicles, thus fuel is being spent on the carrier craft as well.

      What this does help with, though, is reliability and redundancy. Instead of throwing all your eggs in one launch vehicle basket, you're going up to GEO in bits in and pieces, so if one of the launches fails, you don't loose the whole thing. This same idea is the main concept for the F6 fractionated spacecraft [wikipedia.org] program.
  • by SickFreak (578067) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:16AM (#28675827)

    Build another one, then de-orbit both of them. Why build and destroy one when you can do two for twice the price?

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:24AM (#28675945)
    and declare independence.

    With the russians being the only people (once the scuttle is sent to the knacker's yard) who have the ability to send people to the ISS, and the europeans with their independent supply craft, it may even be possible to ignore whatever NASA wants to do. Come 2016, it may even be that there were no more americans on the station - in which case all the existing occupants would have to do would be to stop any more of them arriving. Once the high costs of construction have been met and the station enters a lower cost maintenance phase of it's life, there could well be deals to be done with other countries to keep the station supplied and crews rotated and some real work done.

    Last of all, I would really laugh if the de-orbiting project threw up some show-stoppers which showed that the station was now TOO BIG to be safely taken apart, without affecting it's overall stability - and the risk of the whole thing crashing back in one large piece.

  • by spinkham (56603) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:25AM (#28675953)

    Article implies they are planning on trashing it in 2016 unless they get more funding.. This is a political move, and the ISS will probably be kept in service longer then that.

  • by Allicorn (175921) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:28AM (#28676013) Homepage

    The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture will clearly have something to say about this!

  • by Mysticalfruit (533341) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:28AM (#28676023) Journal
    Honestly, after all the money we've spent, I don't see them just plopping it into the ocean.

    Firstly, if we're going to the moon and mars, the ISS seems like a pretty damn good staging/bailout option.

    Secondly, we need to start thinking long term about our survival as a species. One of those strategies means long term human space flight. Currently a space station is the only thing that's giving us that.

    I'm sure there will be those people who argue that it takes money away from other projects, but right now it's the only thing NASA is doing.
  • by just_another_sean (919159) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:28AM (#28676027) Homepage Journal

    Now that they have this [slashdot.org] it's inevitable that productivity will begin to sink and before you know it there's nothing to do but
    read /. and surf for porn... Might as well start planning for its decommissioning, the place will be useless in a year.

    It will be tested heavily this month, and could give astronauts direct Internet access within a year.

    Tested heavily. My point exactly.

  • by seeker_1us (1203072) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:40AM (#28676177)
    Bill Clinton killed the United States supercollider to fund this piece of shit. Twenty years later, we will have neither.
  • Space politics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:42AM (#28676189)

    It's really difficult to do medium/long term space projects when there are changes to the budget every year, and new legislators looking to reevaluate after every election. If we're going to take on a project like this, we need the resolve (and financial commitment) to see it through.

    How ridiculous is it that we have built the station, but we're not going to send up the already-built Centrifuge Accommodations Module [wikipedia.org], arguably one of the most important planned science modules?

    Keeping the IIS in operation is expensive, but throwing it away would be foolhardy if it still has value for scientific research or for supporting future missions.

  • by Ambitwistor (1041236) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:43AM (#28676205)

    If you're going to deorbit it, why waste it on the ocean? At least drop it on a country we don't like. Or on Kenny [southparkstudios.com].

  • I can't believe that NASA would even float such a concept right now. As a kid, I was fed a constant stream of news that indicated we were planning a permanent space station that would orbit the earth. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. If they do scuttle it (something, imo, not likely to happen as early as 2016 given the international nature of the project), they'll simply be telling the world that they're great as throwing money into holes. Sure, we've recouped advances in science and technology from the time we've had there, but the US taxpayer won't think of it that way. NASA requests for funding will be met with more and more resistance. Money will dry up faster than a spilled gallon of water in the desert.

    I guess I might hold out hope that one of the private space flight ventures might pony-up and put in a bid to buy the ISS. They could monetize it, by leasing compartments or general access to both space tourists and to scientific endeavors.
  • Outrageous (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Eravnrekaree (467752) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:51AM (#28676333)

    This is outrageous, to spend billions on this thing and then deorbit it just a few years after it is complete is just pure insanity. Billions of dollars wasted. I wonder if there will be any useful scientific information to come out of ISS. More likely, it seems that ISS, manned moon and mars programs are nothing but ego trips that drain money away from more effective and productive projects such as Hubble. The idea of manned spaceflight to the moon or mars is ridiculous as most people will never be able to go into space, and you can do most things with cheaper unmanned craft than with these expensive manned systems. With technology which exists in the forseeable future, spaceflight will be little more than a gimmick or something that a few small number of people will do. Its just too expensive and costly.

    I think a public space program is vital, and does things that a private company would not do. A private company would likely mainly shuttle extremely wealthy people into orbit, a few per year, and any scientific data they happen to produce would likely be sold at huge cost, instead of being available to all humanity. The public space program should be science oriented to expand knowledge and make data available to all for improvement of our knowledge of the universe.

  • by Painted (1343347) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:52AM (#28676339) Homepage
    Just as we get to the first flights of Orion, which will almost certainly slip past 1Q2016, we'll deorbit one of the primary reasons we're building Orion.

    I always thought that the 5 year gap of no manned craft for the US sounded dumb, I guess they always had this at the back of their minds and just want to get rid of the thing. I'd get Ares V on tap, send up a big (ion?) booster, and either move it to a more equatorial orbit, so it can be used as an assembly point for lunar/martian missions, or let it go on autopilot through the Van Allen belts and push it into high earth orbit for future use. Hell at that point you could zip it out to a Lagrange point for storage.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642)

      Just as we get to the first flights of Orion, which will almost certainly slip past 1Q2016, we'll deorbit one of the primary reasons we're building Orion.

      Translated ... Orion will also get the boot.

  • Sell it on eBay (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Alcoholist (160427) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:56AM (#28676419) Homepage

    Maybe not on eBay, but the ISS is already up there, I'm pretty sure it was designed to last longer than 16 years, why not sell it to at least cover some of the costs? I personally don't think it would be a good investment, but people pay lots of money for the weirdest stuff.

    I know! The Chinese. They've got money. If we sold it to them cheap, they would be ever so grateful. They might even keep letting us use it from time to time.

  • International (Score:3, Informative)

    by confused one (671304) on Monday July 13, 2009 @10:59AM (#28676493)
    They've threatened this before... And Russia, Japan and the ESA have all said they will oppose any attempt to shut it down in 2016. If you want to throw away (i.e. kill) the international partnership we've created, shutting down the ISS in 2016 would be a good way to do it.
  • by starglider29a (719559) on Monday July 13, 2009 @11:18AM (#28676877)
    Yes, I am aware of the vast amount of Delta V required to do what I'm saying:

    Push the thing into an equatorial orbit, and then use it as a counterweight for the space elevator.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm a avowed Space Elevator skeptic (despite my coincidental name [wikipedia.org] from a book about a space elevator), but...

    This gives us MANY advantages over starting from scratch:
    1. 303,663 kg that we don't have to lift again!
    2. Opportunity to test pie-in-the-sky technology like solar sails, Ion engines. We can lift it to geostationary for "free". Ish.
    3. Opportunity to test pie in the sky hopes like asteroid intervention. This thing weighs a mouse fart fraction of an incoming asteroid, has known mass properties, and even a convenient docking point. If you can't move that, what hope do you have of mitigating an asteroid threat? Let this be our "sandbox" for moving stuff.
    4. Worst case, load the thing with lasers and start vaporizing space junk.
    5. Worst WORST case, assume that mankind eventually goes extinct. If we push this high enough, it won't decay. It can serve as our headstone, complete with a record of what went wrong. The cephalopods will thank us.

    Without getting into the monetary expenses, we've spent too much Delta V to drop this thing.

  • by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Monday July 13, 2009 @11:19AM (#28676879)

    Once again, Congress proves it doesn't understand the sunk cost fallacy:

    "If we've spent a hundred billion dollars, I don't think we want to shut it down in 2015," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told Augustine's committee.

    Of course, these are the same people that are pouring billions to save dying companies such as GM, so I should not be surprised.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Skreems (598317)
      Call me crazy, but it seems that calling something a "sunken cost" is a justification for abandoning it only if there's really nothing useful to be done with the thing. When there really are some benefits to be had, using a position you're in thanks to money already spent is not unjustified.
  • !Permanent (Score:3, Informative)

    by kheldan (1460303) on Monday July 13, 2009 @11:44AM (#28677319) Journal
    Why are we installing 'vital' equipment [slashdot.org] on something we're going to let burn up in the atmosphere?
  • by Uzull (16705) on Monday July 13, 2009 @11:57AM (#28677547) Homepage

    Of course I would send it empty to orbit mars. It would be a first base for arriving mars expeditions. Would do you think about that?

  • by NCG_Mike (905098) on Monday July 13, 2009 @12:09PM (#28677725)
    Why not make it a hotel for those with the funds... perhaps Virgin might be interested?
  • Hang on a second... (Score:3, Informative)

    by damburger (981828) on Monday July 13, 2009 @03:19PM (#28681057)

    I'm not even sure that NASA has the power to make that decision.

    The ISS will fall out of orbit without a boost every so often, and can be deliberately de-orbitted with a boost in the other direction. Thing is, NASA isn't going to be boosting the station in 2016. It will be boosted by Russian Progress and European ATV spacecraft, and possibly by other supply craft from other partners or (maybe) private corporations.

    What gives NASA (or more accurately, commentators on NASA) the impression, that with the shuttle retired and Orion only just getting going, they are going to have any real ability to dictate the fate of the ISS? Do Americans just assume they own and control everything without checking?

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