WASHINGTON – The International Space Station will operate for an additional four years, or until 2024, the U.S. space agency said Wednesday.
“This is a tremendous announcement for us here in the space station world,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
The $100 billion orbiting outpost has been operational for 15 years, and had been expected to remain open to global collaborators until 2020.
More than a dozen countries participate in the space station, which has more living space than a six-bedroom house and comes complete with Internet access, a gym, two bathrooms and a host of science experiments. NASA said the entire lab is 109 meters long.
The ISS is the largest space lab ever built, some four times bigger than the Russian space station Mir and about five times as large as the U.S. Skylab. Although it is near weightless in space, it has a mass of 419,455 kg.
It is maintained by a rotating crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts from the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan.
“People love the International Space Station,” said David Weaver, NASA’s associate administrator for the Office of Communications.
He said this is the second time the life of the station has been extended under the administration of President Barack Obama, and was done based on the science promise that could come from a longer life.
“We need a longer planning horizon than we currently have,” Weaver said.
Gerstenmaier said the decision to extend goes until “at least 2024″ and noted “the hardware can last to 2028.”
“I think the idea is that 10 years from today is a pretty far-reaching, pretty strategic decision,” he said. “We have talked to the partners about this. They were involved in all the hardware studies.”
Gerstenmaier said from the U.S. perspective, the decision would not require any immediate funds, since the budget has already allowed for ISS activity through 2020.
Humans gain access to the lab by launching three at a time aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The Americans’ ability to reach the lab ended in 2011 with the retirement of the 30-year space shuttle program.
However, U.S. companies SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have succeeded in sending unmanned cargo capsules to the outpost, and new U.S. crew ships are expected to launch in 2017.
The aging structure requires regular maintenance, which is done by astronauts who don spacesuits and venture outside the lab.
The last such repair was completed on Christmas Eve, when two Americans stepped out to replace a failed ammonia pump that served to cool equipment at the ISS.
On Wednesday, a strong solar storm interfered with the latest grocery run to the station. Orbital Sciences delayed its delivery mission for the third time, but said another launch attempt will be made Thursday.
The solar flare peaked Tuesday afternoon and more activity was expected, but the company determined that the space weather was within acceptable risk levels. The sun is at the peak of a weak 11-year storm cycle.