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While it may seem like the International Space Station is just now fully hitting its stride as far as scientific output and the ability for crew rotations from several different spacecraft, the ISS has been operating with astronauts on board for over 21 years. Knowing the modules and entire physical structure cannot endure the long-term effects of the harsh space environment forever, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General has issued a new report outlining the agency’s plans to keep the space station in orbit until 2030, and to replace it with one or more commercial space stations.

“Anticipating its retirement, NASA has committed to replacing the ISS with one or more commercially owned and operated space destinations,” the report says, emphasizing that they hope at least one commercial station could be operational by 2028. This would provide a period of two years of overlap and handover to avoid a “substantial gap” in on-orbit science investigations. Such a gap would result in the delay of deep space human exploration missions, the report says.

Even though the retirement of the ISS is currently scheduled for 2024, NASA and the international partners have indicated that the ISS’s operational life could be extended to 2030.

“The Station was designed with a life expectancy of 15 years with a safety factor of two, meaning it could last 30 years after the 1998 launch of its first segments,” the report says, adding that “NASA is optimistic that the Station’s life can be extended to 2030.”

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The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on Nov. 8, 2021. Credit: NASA/ESA

But structural wear and tear is becoming evident. NASA and Roscosmos are investigating the cause and long-term impacts of cracks and leaks that were recently discovered in the Station’s Service Module Transfer Tunnel, which connects the Service Module to one of eight docking ports on the Station. Causes being explored include structural fatigue, internal damage, external damage, and material defects.

Notably, the report says an updated analysis of the structural longevity of other segments as well should be done because the leaks were caused by cracks that models suggest should not exist. This would suggest the possibility of an earlier-than-projected obsolescence for at least one element of the Station.

NASA currently invests 3.5 billion dollars a year in the @Space_Station; with advancements in technology and engineering, new infrastructures, like the @Axiom_Space Station, are much cheaper than what exists today and therefore can offer the same access for a reduced price. pic.twitter.com/9cje8U19W3

— Michael L-A (@CommanderMLA) December 1, 2021

The ISS costs about $3 billion a year, roughly a third of NASA’s annual human space flight budget. Commercial companies say they can provide brand new facilities for a better price, making for a better investment for NASA.

NASA says the Artemis program, aimed at returning humans to the Moon and ultimately landing astronauts on Mars, is not feasible without continued human health research and technology demonstrations being conducted on the ISS and its eventual replacement.

Therefore, in looking ahead, NASA announced today they have signed agreements with three U.S. companies to develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space. They agency said they want to “enable a robust, American-led commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.”

The companies are Blue Origin for their Orbital Reef space station design, receiving $130 million, Nanoracks LLC, for $160 million, Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation for $125.6 million.

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Fly Slowly Through Enceladus’ Plumes to Detect Life

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Enceladus is blasting water into space from the jets at its southern pole. This makes it the ideal place to send a dedicated mission, flying the spacecraft through the plumes with life-detection instruments s. A new study suggests that a spacecraft must proceed carefully through the plumes, keeping its speed below 4.2 km/second (2,236 miles per hour). Using a specialized, custom-built aerosol impact spectrometer at these speeds will allow fragile amino acids to be captured by the spacecraft’s sample collector. Any faster, they’ll shatter, providing inclusive results.

One of the biggest surprises of the 20-year Cassini mission to the Saturn system was the discovery of the active geysers at Enceladus. At only about 500 km (310 miles) in diameter, the ice-covered Enceladus should be too small and too far from the Sun to be active. Instead, this little moon is one of the most geologically dynamic objects in the Solar System.

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Geysers spew from Enceladus in this image from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/Cassini mission.

Cassini’s stunning backlit images of this moon show plumes erupting in Yellowstone-like geysers, emanating from tiger-stripe-shaped fractures in the moon’s surface. The discovery of the geysers took on more importance when Cassini later determined the plumes contained water ice and organics. Since life as we know it relies on water and a source of energy, this small but energetic moon has been added to the short list of possible places for life in our Solar System.

During three of Cassini’s passes of Enceladus in 2008 and 2009, the spacecraft’s Cosmic Dust Analyser measured the composition of freshly ejected plume grains. The icy particles hit the detector target at speeds of 6.5–17.5 km/s, and vaporized instantly. While electrical fields inside the instrument were able to separate the various constituents of the resulting impact cloud for analysis, for a future mission, scientists would like to measure the particles in the plumes without completely vaporizing them.

Back in 2012, researchers from the University of California San Diego started working on a custom-built unique aerosol impact spectrometer, designed to study collision dynamics of single aerosols and particles at high velocities. Although it wasn’t built specifically to study ice grain impacts, it turns out this instrument might be exactly what planetary scientists are looking for to use at Enceladus, or even at Jupiter’s moon Europa, where there is growing evidence of active plumes of water vapor erupting from its surface.

Robert Continetti’s one-of-a-kind aerosol impact spectrometer was used in this experiment. Ice grains impact the microchannel plate detector (far right) at hypervelocity speeds, which can then be characterized in-situ.

Continetti and several colleague have now tested the device in a laboratory, showing that amino acids transported in ice plumes — like at Enceladus — can survive impact speeds of up to 4.2 km/s. Their research is published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“This apparatus is the only one of its kind in the world that can select single particles and accelerate or decelerate them to chosen final velocities,” said Robert Continetti, a professor from UC San Diego, in a press release. “From several micron diameters down to hundreds of nanometers, in a variety of materials, we’re able to examine particle behavior, such as how they scatter or how their structures change upon impact.”

From Cassini’s measurements, scientists estimate the ice plumes at Enceladus blast out at approximately .4 km/s (800 miles per hour). A spacecraft would have to fly at the right speeds to make sure the particles could be captured intact.

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This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapour erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The plumes, photographed by Hubble’s Imaging
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The International Space Station Celebrates 25 Years in Space

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NASA recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the International Space Station (ISS) with a space-to-Earth call between the 7-person Expedition 70 crew and outgoing NASA Associate Administrator, Bob Cabana, and ISS Program Manager, Joel Montalbano. On December 6, 1998, the U.S.-built Unity module and the Russian-built Zarya module were mated in the Space Shuttle Endeavour cargo bay, as Endeavour was responsible for launching Unity into orbit that same day, with Zarya having waited in orbit after being launched on November 20 from Kazakhstan.

“I cannot believe it was 25 years ago today that we grappled Zarya and joined it with the Unity node,” said Cabana during the call from NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Absolutely amazing.”

While this milestone marks 25 years since the first two ISS modules were attached, it would be another two years until the ISS had a crew, Expedition 1, which arrived at the ISS in November 2000 and stayed until March 2001, beginning an uninterrupted human presence on the ISS that continues today. During the two-year period between the first mating and Expedition 1, the Russian-built Zvedza module was attached to the Unity and Zarya modules on July 26, 2000, after launching from Kazakhstan two weeks earlier. Assembly of the large modules of the ISS would continue until 2021 when the Roscosmos-funded Nauka module was attached in July 2021.

Now in its final configuration, the ISS is approximately the size of an American gridiron football field consisting of 8 solar arrays that provide the station’s power while maintaining an average altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles). Its massive size consists of a pressurized module length along the major axis of 67 meters (218 feet), a truss (primary body) length of 94 meters (310 feet), a solar array length (measured along the truss) of 73 meters (239 feet), and a total mass of 419,725 kilograms (925,335 pounds).

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Artist rendition of the ISS compared to an American gridiron football field. (Credit: NASA)
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Image of the ISS taken by SpaceX Crew-2 mission on November 8, 2021 after it successfully undocked from the ISS Harmony module. (Credit: NASA)

Ever since the 3-person Expedition 1 crew first took command of the ISS, a total of 273 individuals from 21 countries have visited the orbiting laboratory and have been comprised of trained astronauts and private visitors. From most visitors to least, the following visitor countries include the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Great Britain, Israel, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Netherlands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, and Sweden.

“One of my favorite aspects of the International Space Station is the international part of it,” said NASA Astronaut and Expedition 70 Flight Engineer, Jasmin Moghbeli, during the call. “We each bring our unique perspectives, not just from our different nationalities, but also our different backgrounds. I think we’re definitely strengthened by the international partnership. It’s just like gaining redundancy when you have multiple partners working together. It’s stronger and more resilient to any sort of problems or obstacles that come our way and so it definitely makes us stronger. And I think that’s why we have had the International Space Station up here for 25 years now.”

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Starship | Second Flight Test

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On November 18, 2023, Starship successfully lifted off at 7:02 a.m. CT from Starbase on its second integrated flight test.

While it didn’t happen in a lab or on a test stand, it was absolutely a test. What we did with this second flight will provide invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship.

The test achieved a number of major milestones, helping us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary. The team at Starbase is already working final preparations on the vehicles slated for use in Starship’s third flight test.

Congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on an exciting second flight test of Starship!

Follow us on X.com/SpaceX for continued updates on Starship’s progress

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