Watch this Space: What’s next, after ISS? Change is coming soon to Low-Earth Orbit - Hindustan Times
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Watch this Space: What’s next, after ISS? Change is coming soon to Low-Earth Orbit

ByNatasha Rego
Apr 19, 2024 04:07 PM IST

The International Space Station will soon be gone. In its place, private laboratories will compete, and hopefully collaborate. Tour an evolving LEO landscape.

The idea was straight out of science-fiction: A post-Cold War US and Russia working on a joint mission to build a giant, rotating, Earth-orbiting laboratory in space.

A view of the International Space Station in orbit around Earth. (NASA) PREMIUM
A view of the International Space Station in orbit around Earth. (NASA)

The International Space Station (ISS) remains the largest manmade object outside Earth. It has hosted 279 people from 22 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Belarus. (No Indians have spent time there yet, but a Gaganyaan astronaut currently in training for India’s first manned mission to space may visit later this year.)

It has carried out thousands of studies, in areas ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to bone loss, and water purification.

“It’s been an invaluable platform for understanding how the human body reacts under different conditions,” says Anil Bhardwaj, director of Physical Research Laboratory, a national research institute for space and allied sciences in Ahmedabad. “It has helped us understand how different materials and compounds behave, and the kind of properties they inherit, in zero-gravity and away from Earth’s magnetic field.”

For the world’s then superpowers, ISS was a way for former enemies to improve relations and build trust. “It’s one of the biggest feats of science diplomacy the world has ever seen,” says Somak Raychaudhury, an astrophysicist and vice-chancellor of Ashoka University.

Twenty-five years in, it is set to be decommissioned. It will be gone from the skies by 2030, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has said.

“It’s an old horse,” Raychaudhury adds. “It was conceived and designed in the 1980s, when computers could still only hold a few KB of data. It is becoming economically unviable to keep up with repairs and replacements (it costs $4 billion a year to run, according to NASA). The miniaturisation of electronics and the power of computing have revolutionised technology here on Earth. There’s no doubt that the ISS needs an upgrade.”

The upgrade will also mark the dawn of a new order.

In less than a decade, the Low-Earth Orbit or LEO landscape will be dotted with private space endeavours. The American company Axiom Space is likely to have the first private space station in orbit, with the first module likely to be put in place by 2026.

The Orbital Reef Space Station, built in a collaborative effort between a number of private companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and the aviation giant Boeing, will serve as a combined research and tourism centre.

Boeing’s European rival Airbus and the American space-technology company Voyager have announced a joint venture to develop a research station called StarLab.

The Russian government is developing an orbital space station that President Vladimir Putin says will be operational by 2027.

India has announced plans to launch the Bharatiya Antariksha Station, a 25-tonne modular structure that will be built in India and operated as a laboratory, by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

The one country that was never invited onto the ISS was China. So, in 2021, China started assembling its own space station, Tiangong. At 75 tonnes, it is a fraction of the size of ISS (which weighs over 420 tonnes), but is reportedly a cutting-edge facility. “China successfully demonstrated capability,” says Raychaudhury. “But the world remains unclear about the larger intent of their scientific research, since they haven’t published anything and haven’t specified their goals.”

Now, as private players look set to dominate the future of space exploration, scientists are beginning to express concern that the opacity that has shrouded China’s experiments only foreshadows what most space exploration, particularly in Low-Earth Orbit, might look like.

“There’s going to be competition over space tourism, over mining asteroids and using space for publicity. The private companies may not even make their research public, in the way that NASA, the European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, ISRO and others have done in the past,” Raychaudhury says.

This could alter how technology is released into the world, he adds. After all, mock meats, digital cameras and the computer mouse all started out as NASA experiments originally meant for use by astronauts.

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There will be advantages to having multiple space stations orbiting Earth. They could potentially serve as invaluable refuelling posts on manned journeys towards the Moon, Mars and the outer solar system. They could allow experiments to be conducted in tandem; results verified. They could allow humans to study microgravity in far greater depth.

They could also set a new standard for collaborative work in space, Raychaudhury says, serving as training grounds for more astronauts, and provide greater mission continuity... assuming that collaboration is more profitable than competition. “It’s difficult to say, right now, exactly how the private space stations will work with each other,” Raychaudhury says. “But as they come up, so will new ideas and experiments.”

The first module of ISS was launched in 1998. It took about 40 trips, over the following 10 years, to assemble its complete frame. It has been inhabited continuously, including during the pandemic, since 2000. It will take significantly less time for ISS’s 16 pressurised modules to be unlocked and deorbited.

A Russian propulsion system keeps the craft in orbit; American-made systems are responsible for electricity and life-support. The two sides (the space station is divided into two porous halves) have no choice but to cooperate with each other.

The end of ISS will mark the end of a unique experiment, and the end of an era. “Science has been better off for it,” Raychaudhury says.

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