How many space stations are currently in orbit?
Last Updated: September 26, 2022
Many people have heard about the International Space Station (ISS). Some consider it the first space station to orbit our planet and the only one doing so. However, the ISS isn’t the first space station, and neither is the only one active.
Space Station Currently Active
Currently, there are two active space stations orbiting around the Earth, namely the International Space Station and China’s Tiagong Space Station (TSS).
1. The International Space Station
The International Space Station results from a multinational collaborative project led by NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA. The average altitude at which it orbits the Earth is approximately 250 miles / 408 kilometres and travels at 17,500 mph. Although now it is considered the largest spacecraft that is orbiting around Earth (covering the area of a football field), the ISS program started by launching its first component in 1998.
After adding more parts in the following years, the spacecraft became inhabited for the first time on November 2nd, 2000. Since then, it broke the record for the longest continuously occupied space station (21 years and 322 days).
Aside from having advanced equipment (pressurized habitation modules, photovoltaic solar arrays, thermal radiators, robotic arms, and other types of machinery), the ISS owns a science laboratory where astronauts gather data and conduct experiments with the purpose of sending humans even further into space.
One significant breakthrough helps greatly in dealing with a disease such as osteoporosis, space studies having an essential contribution in combating muscle atrophy and bone loss. Extensive research on the effect that microgravity has on the human body or the possibility of growing food in space brings humanity closer to exploring Mars.
The ISS was initially commissioned for a 15-year mission. It is now expected to remain active until 2030.
2. The Tiangong Space Station
Tiangong Space Station (meaning “Palace in the Sky”) is a project directly controlled by CMSA, China. As US law forbids NASA to work in collaboration with China, the former decided to construct their own long-term space station. Although Tiangong is significantly smaller than the ISS spaceship and orbits between 210 – 280 mi / 337 – 450 km around Earth, its purpose is to bring people closer to stepping foot on the Moon and Mars.
In comparison with the ISS, which has been in space for almost 22 years, the Tiangong spaceship launched for the first time on the 28th of April, 2021. Despite this, its structure and components are frequently improved, and CMSA has high hopes for future international collaboration.
So far, the Tiangong spaceship facilitates a transport vehicle for its spaceflight program, a laboratory, a cargo airlock with multiple functionalities, a core module containing the living quarters, and a freight vehicle intended for transporting heavy payloads.
The advantage of a new ship lies in the innovative technology used to build it. In the short period of time that The Tiangong spaceship has been in space, the astronauts have made key discoveries in fields like human operation in space, regenerative life-support technology, and future deep space exploration. As disclosed by a spaceship designer, one incredibly innovative addition is the opportunity to engage in commercial activities in the private sector.
The Tiangong Space Station is technological proof that China wants to become a leading space power. Credit: Shujianyang (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)
Future Space Stations
Due to the experiments and technological advances, almost fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon. This victory was crucial to the development of future space programs, such as revisiting the Moon with the intent of inhabitation.
Human spaceflights are scheduled to land on the Moon and Mars to establish self-sufficient settlements. Combining the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the Gateway lunar module, the exploration of the Moon is set to take place by the end of 2024.
While the International Space Station is working towards new discoveries, NASA is close to commercializing low-Earth orbit, and commercial companies are bound to play a significantly increasing role in making it accessible for humans.
Robotic spacecraft will be sent even further outside the Solar System to gather much-needed information about outer space. Will the collaboration between several nations bring humanity closer to the Moon? The possibility of owning a private spaceship becomes more of a reality every single day. Here are some future planned space stations:
Orbital Reef Space Station
The Orbital Reef is a private space station built especially for commerce. Private space companies work in collaboration to achieve the perfect tourism experience. You will enjoy exquisite views of the planet Earth in 0 gravity. With the aid of futuristic architecture, the spaceship offers comfortable accommodation completed with a ready-to-help crew. This project gives the opportunity to establish your business in space, promising a future of discovery and unimagined possibilities.
Lunar Gateway Scientific Station
The Lunar Gateway Scientific Station takes part in the Artemis program, focusing on successfully implementing long-term settlements on the Moon. The space station is meant to replace the ISS after its retirement. It will orbit around the Moon and will be the main point of robotic and human research.
But the inhabitation of the Moon is not the sole purpose as it will serve as an example for NASA’s Deep Space program for transport to Mars. The researchers and scientists working at the Artemis Program are sending a clear message: by changing the world with their discoveries, the new generation will be inspired to continue to do so.
Previous Space Stations
Although many people know about the ISS and the Tiagong Space station, there were several other space station programs in the past. Some of them include:
The Salyut spaceship owns the title of the first space station program. Even if USSR used this program partly as a cover for highly secretive military stations, there is no denying that it reached important milestones, such as achieving the first orbital handover of a space station between two different crews.
A variety of long-term research resulted in significant discoveries, which allowed Salyut to pave the way for the next generation of spaceships, which will become more complex and advanced in technology. Salyut was launched on April 9, 1971.
A life-size model of the Salyut space station in Russia.
Preceding the ISS spaceship, Mir was the largest spacecraft built at that time. Its purpose was to become “Phase One” for the collaboration between NASA and Roscosmos. The program officially started in 1994 and launched 11 space-shuttle missions before its end in 1998.
The partnership between the two nations was successful. Some achievements worth mentioning are the first launch of an American astronaut aboard a Soyuz spacecraft and the first American spacewalk using a Russian spacesuit.
An artistic representation of the space station Mir in orbit around the Earth.
Unlike the Mir spaceship, which was reused in the ISS program to carry different payloads to various orbits, the Skylab spaceship’s destiny was to disintegrate, causing debris to be scattered across the Indian Ocean and Western Australia. The space station was the first and only exclusively American spaceship, launched by NASA in 1973 and reaching its end in 1979.
Its structure contained a solar observatory and an orbital workshop and finalized many experiments relevant to the evolution of space traveling. Although its timespan was short, the program reached its main objectives: it proved that humans could live in space for a certain amount of time and gathered extensive knowledge about solar astronomy.
A view of space station Skylab above Earth’s atmosphere.
Between the first moon landing and the commercialization of spaceships are only 50 years of rapid development. The impending collaborations of multinational associations like NASA, Roscosmos, CSA, and private companies are set to be game changers for humanity. The upcoming decade promises entirely new opportunities, from Moon settlements and out-worldly discoveries to breathtaking experiences accessible for tourists and businessmen alike.
Written by Hrenciuc Daniel
Hello, my name is Daniel and I am a space enthusiast. I love everything related to space and SCFI, and although I like both Star Wars and Star Trek, I believe we will find something entirely different out there. I am an astronomy writer with a passion for both history and mythology. Each star has its tale. Let me tell you their story!
As they experience nighttime about 16 times per 24 hours, it gives them many opportunities to observe the stars.
You could see the station a few times within a few hours, granted you are on the night side of the planet and you know where to look.
Let’s take a look at how long it takes to travel to the Internal Space Station from Earth, as well as all of the intricacies involved in such a difficult journey.