Bids for ISS demolition rights are now open, NASA declares

Winning spacecraft will dock with the station at least a year before go time

NASA has confirmed it will ask American companies to duke it out for the opportunity to deorbit the International Space Station – quietly releasing a request for proposals last week.

The specs, which appeared on US government e-procurement portal, are for a vehicle the agency has dubbed the US Deorbit Vehicle (USDV), which will be focused on the space station's final deorbit activity.

According to NASA, it will be a "new spacecraft design or modification to an existing spacecraft" that must function on its first flight (yep, important that), as well as have "sufficient redundancy and anomaly recovery capability to continue the critical deorbit burn."

NASA is getting in well ahead of the 2030 deadline, by which time the agency is hoping to have "seamlessly transitioned" to commercially owned and operated platforms in low Earth orbit (LEO). The vehicle will take years to develop, test, and certify.

This view from NASA spacewalker Thomas Marshburn's camera

This view from NASA spacewalker Thomas Marshburn's camera points downward toward the International Space Station with the Earth 265 miles below him. Marshburn was attached to the Canadarm2 robotic arm during a six-hour and 32 minute spacewalk to replace a failed antenna system on the orbiting lab's Port-1 truss structure. Credit: NASA

The request for proposals (RFP) is a confirmation that the agency is going to go with the second option it floated in March, saying a private contractor would cut costs down from a predicted $1 billion.

NASA is but a humble civilian agency responsible for the peaceful exploration of space, not part of the DoD, which got $45 billion more than it asked for this year when the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act handed $816.7 billion to the Defense Department. (Although, let's be fair, NASA's $25.4 billion budget for 2023 was an increase of 4.7 percent and it has been struggling with soaring ongoing costs for its Space Launch System – slated to be the "primary" launch vehicle of the Artemis Moon landing program, as The Reg previously reported.)

Option one was a preliminary strategy and action plan where NASA and its four partners – the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and Roscosmos – thought they might use several Roscosmos Progress spacecraft to look after deorbiting ops. But NASA now says a "new spacecraft solution" would provide "more robust capabilities for responsible deorbit." Ahem.

According to the final RFP, NASA wants the deorbit vehicle to attach to the ISS (via docking or berthing) at least a year before the planned ISS re-entry date – which hasn't yet been decided – to allow enough time for on-orbit tests and checkouts.

The contract notice adds that ISS altitude lowering can occur "naturally via atmospheric drag or via Russian propulsive control from the deorbit vehicle rendezvous altitude to the final circular holding altitude at approximately 270km, where maneuvers will be performed as necessary to establish proper ground tracks prior to the final deorbit burn sequences."

Below 270km, a combination of natural decay and/or propulsive maneuvers will reduce the ISS perigee to approximately 150km. Shortly thereafter, the deorbit vehicle will perform the final reentry burn resulting in a controlled reentry of the ISS within a pre-defined, uninhabited entry corridor. Throughout the final series of deorbit events, the deorbit vehicle will be responsible for providing both delta-v and attitude control of the ISS.

Scientific work on the ISS includes some wonderful and important fundamental research – aka basic research, or foundation research, the not-immediately-monetizable stuff shared within the scientific community to help base level understanding of how things work – research that, sadly, boffins sometimes struggle to get funding for here on Earth.

Besides your pulsars and black holes, there has been extremely cool microgravity research on how forces in fluids behave that could ultimately help multiple disciplines, plus thermodynamics experiments that could change the way we look at heat transference in cooling systems.

Current work this week includes a look at how thin film polymers and solar cells behave, which the 'nauts get to send through the station's JEM airlock and onto an "exposure platform" using robotic arms. ESA tests its samples on the EXPOSE-R-2 facility, and has used the platform to determine whether microorganisms could repair DNA damage resulting from space exposure. Excitingly, results published last year in Nature suggest that they can, meaning we could potentially use them to support human settlements if we can get off-planet (in time).

A series of experiments from Japan's JAXA, meanwhile, exposed microbes and organic compounds to space to test the "panspermia" hypothesis of the transport of life among celestial bodies – with results so far showing radioresistant bacterium Deinococcus aetherius wasn't bothered by UV radiation.

Speaking of NASA's ISS partners, they will also be responsible for dismantling their respective modules on the lashed-together 109m long station. The station has a habitable volume of 388m3, a module length of 51 meters and a mass of 409 metric tons.

The agency previously said its "goal" was to be "one of many customers in a robust commercial marketplace" in low Earth orbit, where "in-orbit destinations" as well as transport for cargo and crew are available as services to the agency.

As ops and services in LEO are being looked after by private industry, NASA will be looking deeper into the skies – at human missions on the Moon and around Mars – or at least that's the hope.

While there have been dust-ups between ESA and Roscosmos, and Russia said last July it would leave the ISS after 2024, this April it confirmed it would support operations on the ISS until at least 2028, to the relief of international scientists doing their work there.

As for the ISS replacement, ESA, JAXA, NASA et al have all made noises about future cooperation for the good of humanity, so whatever the private-public LEO future looks like, hopefully there'll still be a lot of that. ®

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