NASA wants to build a ‘space tug’ to safely destroy the ISS

In 2009, Neill Blomkamp struck the public consciousness harder than a downed spaceship with his feature debut, District 9. The film established Blomkamp’s signature style, which mixes dark, dark real-world environments with high-flying futuristic technologies and creatures. This aesthetic came back with a vengeance in Blomkamp’s second film in 2013, Elysium (now airing on Peacock!) Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.

The story takes place on Earth in the year 2154. Specifically, part of the story takes place on Earth. The rest revolves around and takes place on an orbital space station called Elysium. Nearly a century and a half in the future, the Earth is overwhelmed by the needs of humanity and most people live in misery on the surface of the planet, struggling to survive. The wealthy elite, however, live their days on a luxury space station, visible but still out of reach in the sky.

Max Da Costa (Damon) is a criminal on parole when he is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation on the job. He received pink underwear, a pat on the back and five days to live. Rather than return home and wait for the end to come, Max embarks on a life-and-death mission to get to the station, break in, and use one of their high-tech med berries to heal. his mortal condition before it is too late.

By the time the credits roll, Max and his friends have succeeded in destroying the power structure that kept them eternally powerless, but it’s only a matter of time before the physical distance between Earth and Elysium results in the same type of loss based on altitude. class system again. If they really want to prevent this kind of power disparity from happening again, they may have to shut down the station for good. Of course, this is not the easiest thing to accomplish, as our own scientists and engineers know very well.

In recent years, we have seen several large craft crash to Earth in an uncontrolled descent. One even crashed into the Moon, giving our closest cosmic neighbor some new craters.

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So far we’ve avoided any catastrophic accidents caused by pieces of disintegrating spacecraft falling over populated areas, but letting rockets and orbital labs fall back to Earth wherever they please is a recipe for early disaster. or late. This is especially true when it comes to the International Space Station, which is the largest man-made object we have ever sent into space.

Over the past few decades, members of five space agencies and dozens of nations around the world have come together to build modules, conduct experiments and live together in space. The result is a truly massive machine, 310 feet (94 meters) long and almost as wide, speeding through space at over 17,000 miles per hour, 250 miles above Earth. It’s not the kind of thing you want to get off anywhere. But you have to go down.

Currently, the ISS is due to be decommissioned in 2030, by which time we will need to figure out what to do with it. So far, the plan has been for Russia’s Roscosmos to provide Progress robotic vehicles — unmanned craft similar to the Soyuz — that would de-orbit the station through a series of engine burns. Each fire would slow the station, reduce its altitude, and eventually push it into the atmosphere, where it would fall apart. However, Russia has indicated its desire to leave the station sooner, potentially within the next two years, in order to pursue its own orbital station. All of this seems to have prompted NASA to come up with its own deorbit solution.

A surprise in the 2024 budget request reveals that NASA is not comfortable relying on Roscosmos to ensure the ISS descends safely. The budget request, which totals more than $27 billion, includes $8.1 billion to support the Artemis program. This would cover rockets, crew vehicles, landers, spacesuits and more for Artemis II and III.

RELATED: How Do NASA’s New Artemis Spacesuits Compare to Our Favorite Sci-Fi Gear?

Additionally, the budget allocates $180 million to begin development of a “space tug” designed to safely deorbit the International Space Station so that it descends over the open ocean. The budget proposal says, in part, “The International Space Station will need to be safely deorbited at the end of its operational life as the United States transitions to lower-cost commercial space stations. Rather than relying on Russian systems that may not be able to accomplish this task, the budget provides $180 million to kick-start development of a new space tug that could also be useful for other missions. of space transportation.

This amount of 180 million dollars is only the beginning of the project, the total cost of the vehicle to be much higher. At a press conference to discuss the budget proposal, NASA human spaceflight manager Kathy Lueders said their initial estimate of the cost of the space tug was just under $1 billion. of dollars. Their plan is to approach contractors for proposals, which should reduce the cost somewhat.

That said, you can’t really put a price tag on NOT getting crushed by a football field-sized research lab. Whatever the cost, we should probably pay it.

When the ISS does eventually fall, try imagining Elysium (now streaming on Peacock) instead of the coolest science lab we’ve ever created. This will help relieve the pain.

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