10 Super Interesting Things to Know about the International Space Station (ISS)

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The International Space Station (ISS) has been in the news a lot this week due to a new crew heading up there, including Tim Peake, who is the first British astronaut to go to the ISS. And people love to hear the personal story behind the astronaut.

The ISS is an amazing human achievement, it being a structure that has survived and housed humans in space for a long time. It’s our window into space.

It also has super interesting things to know about it.

1- The ISS is the Most Costly Construction Ever

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), the cost of the ISS is 100 billion Euros, over a period of 30 years, shared by the contributing nations and space agencies.

That’s a lot of money, and is arguably the most expensive man made object. To put that into context, the Large Hydron Collider, which is another expensive scientific experiment, cost about 8 – 9 billion Euros.

Why is it so expensive? Well, it’s a man made construction, the size of an American football field, floating in orbit, and it’s home for up to 6 crew members. That’s a big accomplishment.

2- It’s a truly International Space Station

The ISS is built and maintained by a truly international group of participants. The main contributing countries are The United States and the Russian Federation. Their contribution consists of providing launch capabilities (currently only the Russians are able to provide this, given that the US Space Shuttle is no longer operational), providing modules and providing most of the crew members and the funding necessary to do this.

Other contributing nations, mostly by way of extra (scientific or storage) modules and crew members include Canada, Japan and eleven members states of the European Space Agency (ESA).

The eleven members states of ESA are: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

3- ISS Orbit Height

The ISS orbits the Earth at an altitude of between 330 – 435 kilometers (205 – 270 miles), it moves between these altitudes by using thrusters, either from the Zvezda module, or from visiting spacecraft.

Think about that, it’s the size of an American football field, and it can change altitude up to 100 kilometers (65 miles), while floating in orbit.

4- A sunrise Every 92 Minutes for the ISS

On Earth we get a sunrise once a day. Because the ISS orbits the Earth, and the Earth orbits the sun, and due to the trajectory that the ISS has around Earth, it gets a sunrise every 92 minutes, which is about 16 sunrises per day for the ISS and its crew.

5- The ISS is Made Up of Multiple Modular Units

Zvezda ISS Module (source NASA)

Zvezda ISS Module (source NASA)

The ISS was slowly built by adding various modular units to each other. The units all have their own capabilities, and together they make up the ISS. The units are made by the various contributing nations and space partners.

The Zarya: It was the first module of the ISS, so the founding part of the puzzle. It was built and launched by the Russians and is now used for storage and propulsion, although initially it did more than that when it was orbiting the Earth on its own. The Zarya module was launched November 20 1998. So that makes the ISS 17 years old!

Unity: The first connecting module, to the Zarya module, was Unity, which was built and launched by the United States. It is responsible for producing oxygen, recycling of urine, and the transportation of these materials around the rest of the space station.

Zvezda: The Zvezda module, built and launched by the Russians, contains the living quarters for the crew of the ISS, and the fitness area. It contains a treadmill and other fitness equipment. The crew of the ISS need to train a lot each day to compensate for the lack of gravity, and its effect on the human body.

Destiny: The Destiny module, is the US scientific laboratory module. It’s where the scientific experiments take place, and that’s really the main function of the ISS, to carry out scientific experiments, and further our understanding of space. The Destiny module also has command and control capabilities.

Quest: The Quest module, allows both Russian and US suits to be used for space walks. Before this module, only the Russian made suits could be used.

Pirs: The Pirs module, allows for Russian spacecraft to dock with the ISS. It will soon be replaced with another new module.

Harmony: The Harmony module is another living quarters for the crew, and another connecting unit which increases options to connect yet more modules in the future. The Harmony module was named by the public, in a competition.

Columbus: The Columbus module was built by the Europeans, it’s the first non US or Russian module to the ISS. It’s another module for scientific experiments, to increase the research capabilities of the space station.

Kibo ELM-PS: The Kibo ELM-PS module, the first without a catchy name, is a storage module, it can store scientific experiments.

Kibo JEM-PS: The Kibo JEM-PS module, is a Japanese module, further expanding international contribution, it’s another storage module, which can store more scientific experiments.

Poisk: This module is very similar to Pirs, and serves the same purpose. This allows for more docking options, eliminates a single point of failure (for docking).

Cupola: The Cupola module is basically a window to outer space, they’re big windows, with a panoramic view, which can be used to get a good look of the space station on the outside, which is handy for space walks, and in case there are problems with the ISS.

Tranquility: The Tranquility module provides more real estate space for the crew, and scientific experiments, as well as some more docking options (you can never have enough of those).

Rassvet: The Rassvet module, is another storage unit, and another docking unit for spacecraft.

PMM: The PMM, or Permanent Multipurpose Module, is another storage unit, but slightly different from previous ones because it was initially used as a transporter, but has now been used to permanently increase the size and space of the ISS.

6- The ISS has been Continuously Manned since November 2 2000

The first crew to man the space station boarded on November 2 2000. The crew consisted of Bill Shepherd (US), Sergei Krikalev (RU) and Yuri Gidzenko (RU).

Since November 2 2000, the ISS has always been manned by astronauts. So that’s over 15 years of humans continuously in Earth’s orbit. That’s an amazing fact.

Do you think that from now on, we’ll always have someone out in space?

7- The ISS is also a Tourist Attraction, if you have the Money to Visit

The ISS was visited by Dennis Tito, who paid a whopping $20 million. So if you have roughly $20 million spare, you could go up yourself. For $20 million don’t expect luxury though, the ISS doesn’t have showers, coffee options are limited (see below), and there are no day trips. Of course there are plenty of upsides, like the ultimate view of planet Earth!

8- The ISS is the Ninth Space Station

The ISS is not the first space station to be inhabited by humans. In fact it’s the ninth space station!

Some notable previous space stations were the Russian Mir space station and the US Skylab space station.

The ISS is certainly the most impressive of all the space stations, given that it has the record for longest continuous inhabitance by humans in space, and is the biggest space station ever.

9- The ISS has an Orbital Decay

ISS Orbit (source ISSTracker)

ISS Orbit (source ISSTracker)

The ISS has an orbital decay, just like other objects that orbit the Earth (or any other body in space). That means the ISS gradually gets closer to Earth with each orbit, due to Earth’s gravity. As time goes by this orbital decay can be significant.

In fact, the orbital decay of the ISS is roughly 2 kilometers per month. Although this amount can vary depending on the current orbital distance of the ISS.

You can track the current locations, altitude and speed that the ISS is travelling at ISSTracker.  That’s pretty cool right?

As of me writing this, the ISS is currently:

  • Travelling at just over 17 thousand MPH
  • Has an altitude of 256 Miles
  • Is above Eastern Europe / West Russia

10- The ISS is Pretty Big

As I mentioned, the ISS is about as big as an American football pitch. To be precise, it’s:

  • 72.8 meters in length
  • 108.5 meters in width
  • 20 meters in height

Imagine getting an object like that more than 250 Miles up into the air. Now you understand why it has a modular design, consisting of multiple smaller modules.

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