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Place of the Year 2018 nominee spotlight: International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest single structure humans have ever put into space. The spacecraft is in orbit 240 miles above Earth, and is both a home and a science laboratory for astronauts and cosmonauts. The station took 10 years and more than 30 missions to assemble, beginning in November 1998 when the first piece of the Station was launched by a Russian rocket.  It includes laboratory modules from the United States, Japan, and Europe. As of January 2018, 230 people from 18 different countries had visited the International Space Station. The ISS includes contributions from 15 nations, with NASA of the United States, Roscosmos of Russia, and the European Space Agency contributing most of the funding. Other partners of the space station include the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The ISS has created the opportunity for people to maintain an ongoing presence in space, conducting research that couldn’t be done elsewhere. 

2018 has been an exciting year for the International Space Station. At the end of August, a tiny hole was found in a Soyuz spacecraft while it was docked at the ISS, leading to a small drop in cabin pressure. Initially thought to be the result of a micrometeoroid strike, Russian cosmonauts came to the shocking conclusion that it may have been deliberately drilled from the inside of the craft, leading to suggestions of sabotage—either by the team who built the spacecraft on the ground, or by one of the astronauts who were on the ISS at the time. The investigation into this incident is ongoing, and Russia convened a State Commission to look into the incident. The location and shape of the hole suggests a drilling mishap, leading to the conclusion that the hole was probably caused on the ground, by the company that builds the Soyuz capsules. However, for a brief period of time in September, speculation ran rampant that someone on the ISS may be trying to sabotage the Russian cosmonauts. 

Russia launched another investigation in October, this time into the failed launch of another Soyuz spacecraft. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, explained that their investigation pointed the blame to a bent pin, which prevented one of the side boosters from cleanly falling away. This resulted in its decompression, and the loss of control over the rocket.

On November 1, The Russian space agency announced that they intend on launching three astronauts to the International Space Station on December 3, an indication that it believes their Soyuz spacecraft is safe for travel. The astronauts for the December launch are Oleg Kononenko of Russia, Anne McClain of NASA and David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency. On November 16, Russia sent a care package to astronauts aboard the ISS in a cargo shipment dubbed Progress 71, launching from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Progress’ Soyuz FG booster is loaded with 5,654 pounds of propellant, air, water and supplies. 

GIF by Nicole Piendel for Oxford University Press.

In the private space sector, SpaceX, the company owned by Elon Musk, was named as the No. 1 company on the 2018 CNBC Disruptor 50 list. SpaceX delivers supplies to ISS. With an estimated $28 billion, it is one of the most valuable private companies in the world. In February the company launched the world’s most powerful rocket since NASA’s Saturn V. In early November at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, SpaceX engineers prepared to launch a Falcon 9 rocket. They are working to boost a Qatrai communications satellite into orbit on November 19. 

All this is happening in the shadow of President Trump’s proposal in June to create a new branch of the US military called the United States Space Force. He explained that, “We must have American dominance in space.” How this could affect the spirit of international cooperation and scientific research on ISS is unknown.

The International Space Station turns 20 this year, and in its time has hosted upwards of 1,500 experiments. We know about the nature and formation of other planets’ moons from spacecraft exploration, such as Voyager and Galileo. Watch below to see David A. Rothery, author Moons: A Very Short Introduction, give his top 10 things you should know about moons. 

Learn more about space and those who explore it with these titles: The First Men in the Moon, Eclipse: Journeys to the Dark Side of the Moon, Totality: Eclipses of the SunMass: The quest to understand matter from Greek atoms to quantum fieldsGravity: A Very Short Introduction, and Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction

Featured image credit: “satellite-iss” by Free-Photos. CC0 via Pixabay.

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