International Space Station turns 15: Here’s how it will eventually be destroyed

Today marks the 15th birthday of the International Space Station (ISS), which is not only the world’s orbital outpost, but also the largest international construction project ever completed.

It’s amazing to think that human beings have consistently lived in space since Nov. 2, 2000, and that we’ve been built a huge science laboratory that orbits the earth and sent 220 people there, all in the same amount of time that Google Ad Words has existed. I feel a bit of a special connection to the ISS since I’ve been writing about the project since 2006, back when I was with Discovery Channel Interactive. In my time there, I wrote about many missions to the space station and its ongoing construction (which was completed in 2011).

When I moved to IT World Canada in 2008, I brought my interest of the ISS with me and sought out stories about Canadian technology contributions to the $155 billion project. Today seemed like a good time to look back on some of those stories.

My favourite was about how Canadian technology will aid in the eventual destruction of the International Space Station. Yes, at some point the mission of the ISS will come to an end and like the space stations before it, it will be guided into the earth’s atmosphere in a controlled burnup. While the ISS must constantly do minor course adjustments to avoid being pulled into Earth’s atmosphere by gravity, it’s important that the destruction be guided and not left to chance in order to eliminate any possibility of debris hitting the planet’s surface and causing harm. (This won’t be happening anytime soon, currently the ISS is funded through to 2024.)

Richmond, B.C.-based MDA Corp. will be responsible for that planned de-orbit going smoothly. Its S-band antennae that are attached to the station will receive the communications for the course adjustment from mission control in Houston. In fact, the antennae is used every day for all the data and voice communications between Earth and the ISS. If your IT team ever complains about difficulty in maintaining equipment, just point them to the challenges that MDA’s technicians faced when constructing this antennae that must be reliable. Not only does the temperature swing from below sub-arctic temperatures to scorching hot in less than 90 minutes as it orbits the earth, but it has to withstand the odd micro-meteorite shower too.

In 2009, following an incident where two satellites unexpectedly collided and exploded into a cloud of debris – threatening the astronauts onboard the International Space Station, who huddled in an escape capsule and waited to see if the debris would collide with the station or not (think of the recent movie Gravity) – I wrote about the IT used to keep Canadian astronauts safe in space. Interviewing Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield years before he became the commander of the ISS, I heard a first-hand account of what it was like to install the Canadarm on the ISS and then operate it for the first time. Also, Ottawa-based Neptec’s Laser Camera System was used after every Shuttle launch following the Columbia disaster to examine the underbelly of the ship for any damage to the hull. Columbia burned up on re-entry after one of its heat shield panels was damaged.

In 2012, I wrote about how Chris Hadfield would approach his time as Commander of the ISS. “When Hadfield takes command of the ISS next year, he’ll take his job seriously. But in classic Canadian style, he’ll also approach it with a healthy sense of humour.”

At this point, I think it’s safe to say he hit it out of the park.

Happy Birthday, International Space Station. I hope I get to write a few more stories about you before your inevitable and fiery destruction.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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