First NASA launched its final shuttle mission earlier this month, and now Russia is debating how to do away with the International Space Station (ISS) as it nears the end of its life cycle.
The answer? To fly the ISS into the ocean, rather than leave the station floating in space.
“After it completes its existence, we will be forced to sink the ISS. It cannot be left in orbit, it’s too complex, too heavy an object, it can leave behind lots of rubbish,” deputy head of Roskosmos space agency Vitaly Davydov explained in a statement.
“Right now we’ve agreed with our partners that the station will be used until approximately 2020,” he added.
Cosmic junk has become a real problem for astronauts in recents years as miscellaneous defunct pieces of space equipment are left floating about.
Just last month, space debris nearly smashed into the ISS, forcing the six crew members aboard the station to huddle in their rescue craft.
The International Space Station originally launched in 1988 and remains on track to be shuttered in 2020.
Currently, it orbits 220 miles above Earth and acts as a base for astronauts from Russia, the U.S., Europe, Japan, and Canada.
This isn’t the first time the Russians have sunk a space station, as it sent the ISS predecessor, the Mir, into the Pacific in 2001 after 15 years in space.
In other space related news, Russia has officially declared this month the beginning of “the era of the Soyuz.” The country plans to replace the existing Soyuz shuttle with an improved ship. Tests of the new shuttle will begin in 2015 and will have “elements of multi-use whose level will be much higher than they are today,” said Davydov.
The U.S. is also developing a new space craft with the intention of exploring deep space, putting it in direct competition with Russian engineers.
“We’ll race each other,” added Davydov.
As both the U.S. and Russia build space shuttles for deeper space exploration, Davydov said it was unclear if there will a need for a new space station once the ISS is retired. Nevertheless, Davydov emphasized that “lots of our tasks are still linked to circumterrestrial space,” meaning, a new space station might be a good base for building components to help explore deep space.
Still, as jobs at NASA are cut, the American shuttles sent to museums, and astronauts forced to hitch rides aboard Russian ships to get to the ISS, it’s certainly a sad and uncertain time for the U.S. space program.