20 years after the “Mir”: Is the end of the ISS coming?

20 years after the “Mir”
Is the end of the ISS coming?

20 years ago the fate of the first space station “Mir” was sealed. People lived and worked there for 15 years. Meanwhile, the successor ISS is getting on in years. The question arises whether the same fate threatens her.

It is a disgraceful signature that put an end to Russian pioneering work in space for the time being. Exactly 20 years ago, on January 5th, the end of the “Mir” space station was officially sealed. The then Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov signed the resolution “On the suspension of the work of the Mir orbital complex” in the capital Moscow, which ordered the sinking of the almost 15-year-old space station in the Pacific.

This fate could repeat itself: two decades after the end of the “Mir”, the future of the International Space Station ISS is more uncertain than ever. Like its predecessor, the ISS is now getting on in years. For almost 22 years it has been floating 400 kilometers above the earth. For weeks she has been in the headlines because of her mishaps – and less because of scientific work. The station will officially remain in operation until 2024. How it will continue after that is still unclear.

The Russian space agency Roskosmos announced in Moscow that discussions are now being held. Consultations with the US space agency Nasa and other partners on these issues should begin in the new year. “An extension of the operating time depends on technical and political issues that are discussed with the partners.” A few months ago, Roskosmos boss Dmitri Rogozin believed that the future of the ISS by 2030 was realistic. Now his choice of words has become much more cautious. The station let know that it was time for them to “retire,” he said a few days ago. The wounds would continue to “heal”. But the end is coming.

More and more construction sites

He is addressing the many incidents in the station in recent months: In autumn, the space travelers spent weeks looking for an air leak that they found with a teabag. Then air came out of the ISS again – and the search began again. The system for oxygen production fails again and again. Even the toilet in space was broken. Roskosmos always emphasizes that there is no immediate danger to space travelers.

The astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics sees the days of the ISS numbered. “As for 2030, I’m skeptical. The systems are getting older.” The ISS could of course be operated for another ten years, but then with a high level of maintenance, says the astrophysicist. However, he expects the ISS to be abandoned in 2026, but no later than 2028. According to previous estimates, the total costs for the construction and operation of the station already amount to well over 100 billion euros. According to earlier information, the USA bears the majority of the running costs of several billion euros annually. Space tourists should now provide additional income.

And Russia has long planned to expand the station with a new research module. Some experts consider an extension of the operating life to be realistic simply because the countries involved in the project want to get as much as possible out of this immense investment. How long the ISS will still fly around the earth, however, depends on whether the costs for repair work get out of hand. The “Mir” also plagued countless breakdowns at that time. The ground station counted more than 1500 at that time – a bitter record for the proud space nation Russia. Since its commissioning on February 20, 1986, a total of 104 Russian and foreign astronauts have worked at the station. But in the end Moscow didn’t have the money to continue operating. Russia was already involved in the ISS at that time.

Online commemoration

After Prime Minister Kasyanov sealed the end of the “Mir”, it only took three months for it to disappear for good. On March 23, 2001, the ailing Soviet heritage was steered towards Earth, burned up in the atmosphere and fell as a hail of rubble in the South Pacific east of New Zealand. After about 86,300 orbits around the world, their remains are still on the ocean floor. For Roscosmos “Mir” did an important job. She initiated the turning point in space research and made it possible for people to stay in space for a long time.

It will be remembered in 2021, it said. Because of the corona pandemic, there will probably only be commemorative events in online format in spring. It is unclear whether there will be a decision on the future of the ISS by then. Perhaps, however, Roskosmos boss Rogozin will be more specific as to whether Russia will build its own space station after the ISS. He had considered that. For practical reasons, astrophysicist McDowell could gain something from a longer life of the ISS. “Then we learn things about what factors limit the life of a space station.” This knowledge could then benefit a new station if the lights on the ISS go out at some point.

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