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What Will Happen When The ISS Crashes?

The ISS is due for a retirement one way or another. Ever since being sent there during the 90s, the space station has been a haven for scientific advancement, but all things must meet their end. And in the case of the International Space Station, it might be one of the most awesome fireworks you’ll ever see.

Roscosmos Leaving ISS? Here's What Will Happen to the Space Station—And It's Not a Good One

(Photo : Photo by Paolo Nespoli – ESA/NASA via Getty Images)
In this handout image provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour orbit Earth during Endeavour’s final sortie on May 23, 2011 in Space. Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli captured the first-ever images of an orbiter docked to the International Space Station from the viewpoint of a departing vessel as he returned to Earth in a Soyuz capsule.

So, what exactly will happen when the ISS crashes back down to Earth? Here are a few scenarios, based on speculations from experts.

The Bigger They Are, The Harder They Fall

The ISS is not a small object. Not even close. It is technically the largest man-made structure ever built in space, with a length of 356 feet end-to-end. This is a single yard short of an entire NFL field, but that’s not everything that describes its insane size.

It is so big, in fact, that it took multiple launches to get it up there: 42 separate launches to be exact, writes Space.com. That’s because launching it fully assembled at a weight of 900,000 lbs (420,000 kg) would be impossible. Even the heaviest thing ever launched into space, the Space Shuttle (which weighed 270,470 lbs) doesn’t even come close.

European Astronauts Want To Reach ISS Independently Through Own Crewed Spacecraft

(Photo : Photo by Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images)
In this handout photo provided by the European Space Agency (ESA), German ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst takes a photo during his spacewalk, whilst aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on October 7, 2014 in Space. Gerst returned to earth on November 10, 2014 after spending six months on the International Space Station completing an extensive scientific programme.

An object of this size and weight will absolutely not survive re-entry intact. It will shatter into millions upon millions of pieces. The smallest ones will completely disintegrate in the atmosphere, while the bigger ones might survive and drop anywhere on the planet. This could be dangerous, since there’s always a possibility that debris will hit where people live and perhaps even cause injuries or deaths.

How Can The ISS’ Crash Be Controlled?

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, the space station will need to perform special maneuvers using its thrusters for “safe atmospheric entry.” Each maneuver will be performed one at a time, lowering the station from its orbit to a single point. This single point is where the station’s crash will be “more predictable.”

If everything goes according to plan, the International Space Station’s descent into Earth will direct it to Point Nemo, also known as the “space cemetery.” It is a region in the Pacific Ocean where there’s almost no life, and is also so far from civilization that the closest humans to it at any given time were actually ISS astronauts. The crash is set to happen in 2031, as reported by CBS News. 

Read Also: NASA is Decommissioning the ISS by 2031-Extends Support from 2024 to 2030 But Will They Destroy It?

The Shadow Of Skylab

Before the International Space Station, there was the equally iconic Skylab: the first-ever space station constructed by the United States. But that station’s demise was far from controlled, with its crash affecting people on the Earth’s surface in unusual ways.

According to History, NASA projected a massive 4,598-mile potential debris field from the Skylab crash, spanning a region of Australia and the Indian Ocean. But even those who were well outside the radius of the debris field were scared. Not just because of Skylab crashing into Earth, but of how it could scatter dangerous materials when debris lands-like when a Soviet satellite unexpectedly crashed in Canada in January of 1978, which scattered radioactive uranium.

As a result, some folks in the country of Devon in England decided to seek shelter in a cave. In Brussels, Belgium, authorities were sounding over 1,200 air raid sirens anticipating the fallout of Skylab debris on their home turf.

If everything else goes according to NASA’s plan, however, the International Space Station’s crash landing won’t be as dangerous (or fear-inducing) as that of Skylab’s. But that shadow will still linger in the air when the fateful day arrives.

Looking Ahead

When the ISS finally retires, it won’t be long before replacements take the helm. That’s because numerous private corporations are already set to launch their own space stations in orbit.

Among these corporations is Axiom Space, which was awarded a contract by NASA to build at least one new crew module for the ISS, writes the BBC. Of course, this also includes other modern space race leaders like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and perhaps even Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Mark 2031 on your calendar now, if you want to have the chance to see the ISS’ retirement in all its fiery glory.

Related Article: Russia Calms Roscosmos ISS Abandonment Rumors-Saying US Astronaut Will Return To Earth as Scheduled

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Written by RJ Pierce

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