6 things you must know about the International Space Station (ISS)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to actually live in outer space? We all must have, at some point in our lives, wondered about the great expanse of space and the vast emptiness beyond it. The ISS is a place in outer space where you can actually live and carry out exciting experiments that can change the world and potentially save thousands of lives!

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION? 

The International Space Station (ISS) is a place where astronauts live and carry out experiments. It is the world’s largest spacecraft that is in constant orbit. You can also think of it as a habitable artificial satellite.

The ISS is the single costliest thing ever made by humanity with an estimated price tag of about 140 -160 billion dollars.  It was possible to construct the ISS due to the joint international partnership made between the top 5 space agencies in the world. The European Space Agency (ESA), Russian Corporation for Space Activities (Roscosmos), Japan Aerospace eXploration Agency (JAXA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and of course, America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA refers to the ISS as a “Human outpost in space bringing nations together for the benefit of life on Earth and beyond.”

The ISS is so prominent that it is easily visible from the earth. In fact, it is the brightest human-made object in the sky. You can view it from your backyard! (You can find the date and time of when the ISS would be observable from your city and organize a viewing party!). It is the size of football (Not soccer) field measuring up to 360 ft in length and about 350 ft in width. Moreover, it can support six crew members, plus visitors. It would weigh a million pounds on earth, but in space, with the absence of gravity, it is weightless, and that opens up a whole new set of opportunities.

what is the size of the international space station
This image will help you visualize the size of the International Space Station when compared to an American Football field. (Source)

WHERE IS THE ISS LOCATED?

The ISS is situated in the low earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 350 to 460km (218 to 285 miles) from the earth’s surface. It has an orbital speed of 27,600 kph (17,500 mph). The ISS completes 16 orbits of the Earth in one day at the rate of 90 minutes per orbit. That would mean that the astronauts onboard the ISS get to witness 16 sunrises and sunsets in one day!

[Tweet “Want to see 16 sunsets in a day? Visit the #InternationalSpaceStation “]
ISS from Soyuz reentry
The ISS with the Space Shuttle Endeavour docked at the left end as shot by the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz TMA-20 on their return journey to Earth

It actually even completed its 100,000th orbit of Earth on May 16 of 2016. It has been continuously occupied since November 2000.

HOW WAS THE ISS LAUNCHED INTO SPACE?

One immediate question that might pop into our minds while reading about the International Space Station might be How was such a Goliath structure sent into space? Well, that’s where the ‘assembly’ of the International Space Station comes into the spotlight.

Just like a Lego set, the space station was built by attaching small chunks (modules) and trusses to form the big structure that we see today on our screens (or in the sky for that matter). Modules are sent via space shuttles and are attached to the main structure with the help of a robotic arm. Sometimes astronauts perform EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activity). EVA’s are basically spacewalks by astronauts. They are performed to assist the robotic arm in installing the modules.

Related: The first spacewalk.

Plans to build the ISS began in 1993, the assembly began in 1998, and as of June 2011, 159 modules were added to the ISS. The modules that were sent into space were made in different parts of the world.

The very first module that was sent was the Zarya on a Russian Proton Rocket. After two weeks another module, from U.S (NASA) called the Unity on a space shuttle STS -88 was sent into the same orbit. It was then attached to Zarya during an EVA.

Zarya module - International Space Station construction
The Zarya Module was the first component launched for the International Space Station

The ISS has more than 40 modules, and all of these together make up the International Space Station.

ISS Modules Construction 2016 - 2
Modules attached to the ISS as of April 2016

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE ISS?

The primary purpose of the space station is to assess the long-term effects of space exposure on the human body. Additionally, its purpose also includes enabling experiments that are not possible on earth because it is hard to simulate weightlessness.

Research on the human body in space—how it reacts to microgravity and radiation—is a high priority for NASA’s ISS science portfolio. NASA wants to use the results from these experiments to study and plan the possibility of sending humans on expeditions beyond the Low Earth Orbit. Possibly to the moon and hopefully, eventually Mars.

The ISS, since it is situated permanently in space, allows astronauts to stay in space for long periods and study the changes taking place in their bodies. Its unique vantage point also helps to observe terrains on earth like glaciers, agricultural fields, cities, and oceans. It is also used to carry out experiments for future space exploration programs.

WHAT ARE THE FUTURE PLANS OF THE ISS? 

Unfortunately, the International Space Station will be in orbit only until 2024. In due time it will be decommissioned and withdrawn from its position. Running the ISS needs economic support from the governments of the five space agencies. And apparently, there is a shortage of that.

In a better world, we would keep the ISS running indefinitely.  There is always more to learn and the ISS is a great test bed for developing technologies for other space missions. To certify equipment for space operations, it needs to be tested in space and the ISS is a great place to do that…NASA’s primary job is to continue pushing the frontier outwards.

The idea is that NASA has mastered low Earth orbit enough that the lessons we have learned will make it possible for commercial companies to operate in low Earth orbit and NASA should then move on to the next frontier. Whether that be to establish a permanent foothold on the Moon, to visit and possibly retrieve an asteroid, or to put human beings on Mars (all of which are possibilities) is something future political leaders will decide, but one thing is fairly assured – NASA will not be given significantly more budget to do such things. That means NASA has to stop doing something it is currently doing.

Robert Frost (Instructor and Flight Controller at NASA)

It would have to be done carefully, so while dismantling it most of its parts will burn in the atmosphere and some parts will fall into the Pacific ocean. Until that unfortunate eventuality, it will be used to carry out experiments, for the benefit of humanity.

HOW HAS THE ISS HELPED US SO FAR? BENEFITS OF THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?

The ISS is a hotbed for research in various domains like material science, weather, medicine, astronomy, biology, horticulture, etc. The findings of the experiments performed aboard the ISS are occasionally used to develop technologies on earth. These technologies are called spin-offs. Some of the most notable benefits from the experiments on the ISS are enlisted below:

Health and Medicine

  • Space-based research has streamlined the vaccine development process. Eventually, this has led to the development of vaccines for Salmonella and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It has also led to discovering new ways to treat cancer and alternative robotic surgical techniques.
  • The Eye Tracking Device (ETD) is used to determine the influence of prolonged microgravity on the inner ear which subsequently affects visual tracking ability. On earth, laser surgery is used to correct vision. And the tracking of the eye is essential for the surgeon to perform the surgery. The Eye Tracking Device equipment is used to perform corrective laser surgeries across the globe.
Benefits of ISS - Eye Tracking Device
Cosmonaut Sergei K. Krikalev uses the Eye Tracking Device (ETD) which measures eye and head movements in space. (Source)
  • NeuroArm, the world’s first robot that can perform surgery inside magnetic resonance machines, got the technological inspiration from Canadarm, Canadarm2, and Dextre, the Canadian Space Agency’s family of space robots that perform heavy lifting and maintenance aboard the International Space Station. NeuroArm has made it possible to operate on previously inoperable tumors.
  • Digital image processing techniques were developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to enhance pictures taken from the ISS. That contributed to MRIs and CT or CAT Scans (also known as computerized tomography).
advantages of ISS - CT Scan
A CT Scan machine developed by Siemens

Water purification

  • NASA’s water processing technology from the Environmental and Life Control Support System (ECLSS) aboard the ISS has been used to provide clean water to countries that face an acute shortage of clean drinking water.
Benefits of ISS - Water Purification System (ECLSS)
The water recovery component of the Environmental Control and Life Support System

This video introduces the US government’s decision to allow the Low Earth Orbit for commercial research. Accordingly, this includes the International Space Station too. Companies and researchers on Earth can now have their research conducted in a microgravity environment.

THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION IN NUMBERS. WHAT ARE THE SPECIFICATIONS OF THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?

-120C (in shade)

+150C (in sunlight)

Speed of the ISS17500mph
Altitude of the ISS220m
Time taken for one orbit90
Number of orbits/Number of sunrises per day16
Temperature of the ISS (exterior)
Lines of Computer Code2.3 million (approximately)
Computers onboard80

(Source)


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