Five things to know about the International Space Station

International Space Station

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Russia is scrambling to bring back three astronauts – two Russian and an American – who are stranded aboard the International Space Station after the spacecraft that was to be returned to Earth was destroyed by a meteor.

Here are some key facts about the orbiting laboratory created to advance space exploration—and prepare to send humans to Mars—as the Russians and Americans have worked together for a quarter of a century.

The size of a football field

The International Space Station is the largest man-made structure ever put into orbit.

It was launched in 1998 by the United States, Russia, Canada and Japan, members of the European Space Agency (ESA) and is the size of a soccer field and weighs roughly the same as a stacked Boeing 747.

Built at a total cost of about $100 billion, most of which was paid for by the United States, it orbits Earth every 90 minutes at an average altitude of 400 km (250 mi).

It has been permanently occupied since November 2000 by Russian and American-led crews who usually stay for six months to conduct experiments in microgravity that have practical applications on Earth and help prepare for future Mars missions.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hay holds the record for the longest stay aboard the International Space Station, which is 355 days.

A model of cooperation between the United States and Russia

Five space agencies representing 15 countries operate the International Space Station.

NASA and the space agencies of Europe (ESA), Canada (CSA) and Japan (JAXA) manage the US orbital segment, which is responsible for providing solar energy. The Russian orbital segment, operated by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, is responsible for propulsion and orbital maintenance.

The United States and Russia each provide half of the food needed for the International Space Station, which is brought in by unmanned Russian and American supply ships, including planes from SpaceX, Twitter owner Elon Musk.

The station has a full crew of seven, but numbers on board can be up to 13 during crew rotations.

Eight spaceships can be connected at any time to the International Space Station, which can be reached from Earth in about four hours.

Soyuz has three places, and SpaceX’s Dragon 2 has four.

There are always two spacecraft docked at the International Space Station for emergency evacuation, but one of them suffered a meteorite collision.

18 hours a day

Astronauts on the International Space Station keep busy.

The day starts at 6am and the lights go out at 10:30pm, after eight to ten hours of science experiments, two hours of physical activity to avoid muscle loss in microgravity and three hours of chores, repairs and free time.

About 200 trials are running simultaneously.

The key, says French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, is to keep busy, because “if you have nothing to do, it’s a bit like a prison with a great view, and some fun stuff like floating.”

Removal of pyrotechnic waste

Nobody has their own room on the International Space Station let alone a bed. Astronauts slide into packed sleeping bags vertically.

There is very little water on the International Space Station: part of it is brought in from Earth, and the rest is extracted from air and urine. Waste water is purified and recycled for use in meals.

The International Space Station has neither a shower nor a dishwasher: astronauts use wipes and air purifiers to remove solid waste, which is compressed into packages and loaded onto supply receptacles, and combusted upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere.

Unsecured future

The International Space Station was never built to last forever.

Both NASA and the European Space Agency want to continue operations until at least 2030. But the Russians said in July 2022 – in the midst of the war in Ukraine – that they wanted to withdraw after 2024 in order to set up their own station, without doing so officially.

After 2030, the International Space Station could be retired and sunk in an uninhabited region of the Pacific Ocean, according to NASA, which has announced plans to move to commercial space stations.

© 2023 AFP

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