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Could the International Space Station really crash? – If it did, where would it fall?

Dmitry Rogozin, Director General of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has threatened that the International Space Station, ISS, would crash without his country’s continued cooperation with other space agencies. This has raised several questions like; can the ISS really crash? Where would it crash into? What would be the effects?

Even before the recent threat by the Russian space agency, you may have once wondered about the ISS. What is it?

International Space Station (ISS) makeup and size

The International Space Station (ISS) is a space station made up of smaller space stations called modules. The idea behind making it a modular structure is so that the modules can be individually modified and replaced. Also, since the ISS is made up of five participating space agencies, it makes sense that these collaborators contribute parts.

Here is how the structure looks when broken up:

International Space Station (ISS) make up and size
International Space Station (ISS) make up and size

When measured, it has a length of 239.4 ft (or 73m) and a width of 357.5 ft (or 109m). So, it is about the length of three average train coaches and as wide as four and half average coaches. When you picture the size, the first thing that comes to mind is how does it stay up there?

See also:
– Russia to suspend ISS cooperation until ‘illegal’ sanctions are lifted
– NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will still return to earth on Russian space capsule
– You Could Stand A Chance To Win Virgin Galactic’s Free Flight To Space.

How does the ISS not crash?

Of course, the engineering and mathematics of keeping the ISS afloat in space are not very simple. It has to do with gravity, velocity, speed, altitude, and distance. However, in layman’s terms, the ISS does not crash because it is far enough from the earth to not be pulled down by gravity, but not too far that gravity no longer affects it. So, if you think it stays afloat because the engines are constantly firing like a futuristic hoverboard, you are wrong.

Picture the ISS like a stone thrown forward at such a height that it keeps going in a curved pattern and never lands. So, the International Space Station actually continues going around the earth and has done so more than 131,440 times.

In addition, it does have thrusters that fire it up once a month, back to the height it needs to stay just far enough from the earth. The thrusters are used once a month because as the ISS keeps falling, it gradually moves close to the earth and closer to gravity.

You can see a Forbes explainer on the maths behind this here: What Prevents The ISS From Falling Out Of Orbit?

What could make the International Space Station crash? Where would it crash?

Knowing what keeps this impressive piece of engineering just above us, it is clear that if the thrusters cannot fire it back to the needed altitude, there are no backups to do this. The ISS will gradually move closer to the earth until gravity grabs hold of it, enough to pull it down completely.

The chances of this happening are slim for several reasons. One, the structure is modular, and modules could be split up if the entire thing can no longer stay afloat together. Something else is that the thrusters are regularly maintained and can be replaced in enough time to correct the altitude of the ISS.

Dmitry Rogozin, mentioned above, had threatened that the ISS would crash if Russia stopped cooperating because it controls the engines (likely the thrusters) keeping it afloat. Yet, there are four other agencies — NASA (United States), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada) — and time to get thrusters or use rocket engines to replace the engines.

Of course, a destructive collision with a large enough meteorite or another spacecraft (even a missile) could cause the ISS to crash. And ultimately, the fact that it decays at a rate of 2 km per month and has been in space for over 21 years means that it would one day be deorbited.

When that happens, the remnants would be directed into a remote South Pacific Ocean area and retrieved.

Rogozin had also said an unplanned crash could mean it would fall into residential areas. “There is also the possibility of a 500-tonne structure falling on India and China. Do you want to threaten them with such a prospect? The ISS does not fly over Russia, therefore all the risks are yours. Are you ready for them?,” he asked.

In response, Dr. Wendy Whitman Cobb, a Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, said: “Though dramatic, this is likely an idle threat due to both political consequences and the practical difficulty of getting Russian cosmonauts off the ISS safely.”

Again, Rogozin’s threat makes no sense because it is not like the ISS would just drop out of the sky because Russian engines stopped working. It is already in a ‘falling state,’ and a crash can only happen over time, enough time to stop it, direct it to a remote area, or evacuate residents at worse.

I know this sounds like the entire premise of the Don’t Look Up movie, but there is no need to live in perpetual fear of the ISS crashing down on you. At least, not at this time.

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Onwuasoanya Obinna

A reader of books and stringer of words. Passionate about Science and Tech. When not writing or reading he is surfing the web and Tweeting.