What is next after the International Space Station?

December 8, 2023

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What has the International Space Station (ISS) been doing in space for the last 25 years?

Today, 20 November 2023, marks 25 years since the first modular piece of the ISS blasted off from Baikonur spaceport. Piece-by-piece the ISS has grown into the huge modular space station that it is today. An amazing fact is that, for the last 23 years there has been a continuous human presence in space on the ISS. Meaning that since the first crew arrived on November 2, 2000, human beings have been living in space every single day. The ISS is currently orbiting the earth every 90 minutes, about 250 miles above the surface of the Earth, at an impressive speed of 17,500 miles per hour.

The ISS is an international collaboration including United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Europe’s European Space Agency (ESA), Russia’s Roscosmos, Japan’s Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Canada’s Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Over 260 individuals, representing 20 countries, have visited the ISS.

The ISS is more than just a base for astronauts, it is a unique microgravity laboratory for scientific research and technology development and testing, and educational opportunities that inspire innovation and discoveries.

Why do we need a space station?

The microgravity on the ISS enables space crew to carry out research which is not possible anywhere else. Some examples of these experiments which have been carried out over the last few years include: investigating the genome (entire set of DNA instructions found in a cell) of the cotton plant, to develop plants which are more resilient and more water efficient. A second example is an investigation of the flow of a mix of sand, water and air particles in microgravity, to better understand mudflows on Earth. This is important as mudflows are becoming more prevalent after wildfires, which are now more common as climate change grows. 

There are many benefits to people on Earth from research carried out in space in everyday life. Resulting products are called ‘spinoff’ and some include; robotics which offer newfound surgical capabilities. Robotics designed for intricate repairs on the ISS are useful for many different industry uses, including a minimally invasive knee surgery procedure. Precision control is incredibly important for inserting tiny implants and so these delicate robotics are a game changer. Another interesting spin off from the ISS is aeroponic gardens. This is where plants are cultivated with the roots hanging suspended in the air and a mist of nutrient solution is applied. The experiment on the ISS has enabled plants to grow healthy without the use of pesticides which has now been developed into a commercial aeroponic system. The sterile environment means that plants can grow disease-free and with 98% less water and no pesticides.

Another important aspect of the ISS is that the crew study the effects of microgravity on the human body over a long time. 

Additionally, the international collaboration operating the ISS has learnt how to launch and maintain a working spacecraft. These lessons will be important in the future for further space exploration, potentially to explore the Moon and even other planets.

Why do we need something new?

The ISS is wearing out. The primary structure has been in place for over 20 years and stresses have accumulated over time. One of the main causes of the wear and tear is extreme changes of temperature as the station moves into and out of the Sun’s view multiple times per day. The ISS project is planned to come to an end in 2031, this could be in a fiery inferno or dismantling the station for other uses.

What will follow the ISS?

Any future space station in low Earth orbit will be a commercial developed and run project. The national and international space collaborations plan to be some of the many customers using private industry transportation and space stations. This will allow organisations such as NASA to focus their money on their two major goals of human space flight – returning to the Moon and journeying to Mars. 

Future space stations might be several smaller stations, which could be ready to take over when the ISS shuts down operations. 

NASA awarded Axiom Space $140 million, in 2020 to make a new module for the ISS, that will eventually separate to be part of a new space station. In addition, in 2021 NASA awarded three companies (Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman) over $100 million each to develop designs for new space stations.

Only 20 countries work together to operate the ISS, however there are now 77 space agencies around the world. Thus, there are many more potential national agencies interested in sending their own astronauts into space. As well as, space tourism which is a growing trend and potential for in-space manufacturing. 

At present it’s not clear how many space stations will end up in orbit, but it looks likely that there will be multiple industry-run space stations within the next few decades. Here are a few potentials:

Axiom Space Station

A rendering of Axiom’s station after it has detached from the ISS Axiom Space
A rendering of Axiom’s station after it has detached from the ISS Axiom Space

One module should join the ISS in 2025, with three further modules after that. These four modules would later form a new independent space station. The first two modules will contain life support for four astronauts each. Additionally, the second module will include a communications system. The third module will be a research and manufacturing facility. One example of manufacturing being considered is alloys which are used in high-stress parts of high-performing engines. These benefit from being manufactured in space as they can be up to two times stronger when manufactured in space. This is because the crystalline structures of some alloys align perfectly when they are cooled in microgravity, as opposed to here on Earth where they align imperfectly. The final module will have power and thermal capabilities, including solar arrays to produce energy for electricity from the Sun’s rays. As well as containing the station’s airlock, for astronauts to enter and exit through for space walks.

When this space station becomes independent the carbon dioxide from astronaut’s exhaled breath will be combined with hydrogen from water to create methane to fuel orbit mauves. Axiom plans to make living in space more enjoyable, so they are planning to have a more pleasant living environment than the current ISS with large earth facing windows in the third module. 

Northrop Grumman Space Station

A concept of the first module (left) of Northrop Grumman’s station, with a white and black NASA Orion crew module attached (top) and two Cygnus spacecraft (bottom and right) Northrop Grumman
A concept of the first module (left) of Northrop Grumman’s station, with a white and black NASA Orion crew module attached (top) and two Cygnus spacecraft (bottom and right) Northrop Grumman

Northrop Grumman is basing their designs for a new space station on things they are already developing. Their first module will be a stretched-out version of the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) module they are developing for Gateway (NASA’s space station which will orbit the Moon). The module needs to be larger as the astronauts will continually be on the low-Earth orbiting space station, as opposed to the astronauts visiting Gateway, which will only be using it for weeks or at most a few months. This service module could be ready to launch as early as 2028.

They are also planning two stretched out versions of the Cygnus spacecraft, which they already use to fly cargo to the ISS. These could temporarily dock to the station, providing additional space for storage, crew habitation and research. They are also looking at larger modules if there are other potential users.

Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef

A rendering of Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef Orbital Reef
A rendering of Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef Orbital Reef

Orbital Reef station being developed by Blue Origin is being planned as a business park in space. There will be a core module that will act as a lobby connecting to the research and habitation modules. Solar panels will be on a mast from the core module, in addition fin-like radiator to release the excess heat. The core module will be responsible for environmental control systems, communications, guidance, and navigation.

A lab module would attach to one side of the core module, with facilities for research in fields such as life and material sciences. Additionally, the module would also be able to attach experiments to the outside. The life habitat would be an inflatable node module on the other side of the core where the astronauts could sleep, eat, and exercise. 

There plans go far beyond research and manufacturing. Including thinking about such users as entertainment – using the station as a movie studio or even a sports facility. They are also considering one day adding a luxury hotel module. Orbital Reef is planned to have space for 10 astronauts.

Starlab from Voyager Space and Nanoracks

A rendering of the Starlab station orbiting Earth Voyager Space
A rendering of the Starlab station orbiting Earth Voyager Space

Starlab will launch all at once, being the largest mass ever launched into space. It will include a habitat, docking node, propulsion system, robotic arm and solar panels. These solar panels will unfurl when in space.

The plan is to have three floors in the cylindrical habitat, including living, research, and manufacturing areas. With space for only four astronauts. The hotel chain Hilton is designing the habitation space, and the sleeping area would be more spacious and private than the ISS.

One of the planned labs on this space station is a replica of a lab at Ohio State University. This means that experiments could be carried out on Earth first so that astronauts could familiarise themselves with the space beforehand. There is the option for a partner such as ESA to attach a research module in the future.

Conclusion

Time is running out for the ISS before it wears out. There will most likely be many industry run space stations following the ISS for future astronauts to visit and base themselves while they carry out research. There will also be potential for in space manufacturing, space tourism and even entertainment such as film making.

For more details on the ISS and what it is like in orbit around the Earth, sign up for one of our courses today. This topic features in our Mission Astro ‘The Escape from the Blue Marble’ course and our Certificate in Space Science. Our in-depth interviews with Dr Francesca Letizia (ESA Space Debris Engineer) and Dr Greg Madsen (Satellite Engineer with Lockheed Martine AUS) are just a few clicks away!

This post was written by Dr Heather Campbell for Mission Astro.

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