While NASA's fleet of retired space shuttles have distinguished earthbound retirement plans, history'slargest space station will instead go out in a blaze of glory — literally. The International Space Station (ISS) is outer space's premier research and space travel hub, but the interstellar vessel is showing its age. When it is decommissioned around 2020, the current plan is to send it careening to a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean.
Assembly of the ISS began in 1998, as an international effort in tricky space architecture and has hosted a party of humans in orbit consistently since 2000. Plunging massive pieces of space transportation into the ocean is somewhat common practice, strangely enough: Russia did the very same thing when it retired the Mir Space Station in 2001.
During the deorbiting process, much of the material from the ISS will burn up as it falls through Earth's atmosphere, ideally resulting in less pollution than if the structure were to be jettisoned off into space intact.
The space station's planned sea death is an effort to avoid littering space with more problematic chunks of space junk. In orbit, debris can cause costly and dangerous damage to space vessels and satellites — a threat that scientists continue to troubleshoot with such far-fetched ideas as scrubbing tungsten dust clouds, super sophisticated junk-spotting telescopes, and earthbound space lasers.
[Image credit: NASA Goddard]
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