International Space Station
The International Space Station has a long drop coming in 2020. Image: Undertow851/Flickr/CC BY

An official from Russia’s space agency said Wednesday that the International Space Station will be sunk into the Pacific in 2020. If left on its own after the station has served its effectiveness, it could become dangerous space junk.

Too complex and heavy

“After it completes its existence, we will be forced to sink the ISS. It cannot be left in orbit, it’s too complex, too heavy an object, it can leave behind lots of rubbish,” said Vitaly Davydov, deputy head of Russia’s space agency.

Controlled descent into the ocean

The first U.S. space station, Sky Lab, fell from orbit in 1979 after six years in space. However, after Russia’s space station Mir had served its effectiveness with 15 years in orbit, it was put into a controlled descent into the Pacific.

CBS News space analyst William Harwood described the process:

“With something as large as the station, they’ll do a targeted re-entry to make sure it doesn’t rain down on, say, New York.”

Largest orbiting outpost ever built

The ISS is the largest orbiting outpost ever built. At times, it can be seen in space by the naked eye. It was the result of a multinational collaboration involving Russia, Japan and the U.S. Since then, Canada and Europe have joined in on the project.

First manned in 2000

The first module of the ISS was launched in 1998. It hosted astronauts for the first time in November of 2000. It now consists of more than a dozen modules and can house up to six astronauts.

ISS life could be extended

The ISS was originally to slated to be scrapped in 2015. President Obama included funding through 2020 in his 2011 fiscal budget. There is speculation that the station’s life may be extended past 2020, but that would require a nation to pony up the funds. The U.S. space program is shifting gears to concentrate on unmanned probes. Last week, the final space shuttle mission returned to earth for the last time.

A near miss

One thing is clear. No space agency wants to deal with potentially hazardous space junk in its future off-earth endeavors. Just last month the ISS had a near miss with orbiting debris. Reportedly, the space junk came so near the ISS that its six-member crew readied an emergency rescue craft, just in case.


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