SPACE STA­TIONS: WHAT COMES NEXT?

Focus-Science and Technology - - SPACE -

The fu­ture of the ISS is un­cer­tain

The ISS is liv­ing on bor­rowed time. It has had sev­eral life­time ex­ten­sions be­fore – first tak­ing it be­yond 2016, then to 2020, and fi­nally through 2024. But all the signs are that NASA fund­ing will dry up in 2025. NASA hopes that other coun­tries and pri­vate com­pa­nies will take over op­er­at­ing its mod­ules. The trou­ble is, the ISS costs $3-4bn a year to op­er­ate, so it’s not clear how vi­able this will be. Ru­moured al­ter­na­tives in­clude the ISS be­ing bro­ken up and in­di­vid­ual mod­ules sold off to pri­vate com­pa­nies, or it be­ing al­lowed to fall into Earth’s at­mos­phere and burn up.

Pri­vate space sta­tions

Some busi­nesses have their sights set on build­ing their own space sta­tions from scratch. One front-run­ner, Bigelow Aerospace, has an ex­pand­able mod­ule, BEAM, that was latched onto the ISS in 2016 (above). The next step for Bigelow will be to launch larger in­flat­able mod­ules. These units will ex­pand out to 330m3 and it is an­tic­i­pated that two will be ready for launch by 2021. An­other com­pany is Ax­iom Space. Its pres­i­dent and CEO is Michael Suf­fre­dini, a for­mer ISS pro­gramme man­ager. Ax­iom also plans to link mod­ules to the ISS be­fore go­ing it alone.

Book your­self a space sta­tion va­ca­tion

The next gen­er­a­tion of space sta­tions will be de­signed for tourists as well as as­tro­nauts. Hous­ton-based Orion Span plans to of­fer stays aboard its lux­ury Aurora Sta­tion (be­low) from 2022. At $9.5m, a trip to low Earth or­bit won’t come cheap. The ex­pe­ri­ence will start with a three-month train­ing plan, be­gin­ning with an app that it plans to re­lease in 2019. Then it’s off to Orion Span’s fa­cil­ity in Texas, to learn about space­craft sys­tems and get some weight­less­ness prac­tice. Dur­ing the 12-day flight, vis­i­tors will be able to ex­pe­ri­ence zero grav­ity, see the aurora bo­re­alis and grow food.

Rus­sian ru­mours and Chi­nese cer­tainty

While Rus­sia is in­volved with the devel­op­ment of Gateway, there have been other re­ports too. One of these is that Rus­sia plans to hive off some of its most re­cently added ISS mod­ules in or­der to cre­ate a new sta­tion in low Earth or­bit. But China has plans too. In 2011, it launched a space lab, Tian­gong-1, which ended ser­vice in 2016. A suc­ces­sor, Tian­gong-2 (above), was launched in Septem­ber 2016. China sees both as testbeds for its main project: a large mod­u­lar space sta­tion. A core cabin mod­ule is slated for launch in 2020, with the goal of hav­ing the sta­tion up and run­ning by 2022.

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