Having spent over 17 years in low-Earth orbit (LEO) the International Space Station (ISS) has completed its 100,000th lap of planet Earth. At this point the station, which has been permanently manned since the year 2000, has traveled over 2,643,342,240 miles (4,254,046,974 km) through the near perfect vacuum of space – the equivalent of 10 round trips to Mars.
The ISS was first launched in 1998 and stands today as mankind's only habitable outpost beyond Earth's nurturing atmospheric shell. It has withstood the test of time, a silent witness to the coming and going of world leaders while remaining an island of tranquility in spite of the tensions that have too often plagued participating nations on the planet below.
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Roughly the size of an American football pitch, the station has been a home to 222 astronauts and cosmonauts, who over the course of their stay in LEO have performed over 1,200 research investigations ranging from 3D printing to a study on the effects of microgravity on twins.
Photos taken by crew members have documented life aboard the ISS as well as the Earth below in exquisite beauty, and the crew of Expedition 47 recently captured the 3 millionth image from aboard the station. Alongside these images, a near live HD view of our planet is streamed to anyone with internet access from cameras mounted on the exterior of the station.
However, as has been the case back on Earth, mankind's success in developing new technologies and advancing itself has come at a cost to the LEO environment. It is now estimated that there are over 12,000 pieces of man made debris over the size of 10 cm (3.9 inches) orbiting Earth at speeds of up to 15 km per sec (9.32 miles per sec).
This debris is a hazard to future manned and unmanned endeavors, and has forced mission operators to alter the space station's orbit a number of times to avoid a potentially catastrophic collision. Having awoken to the problem, launch vehicle and satellite manufacturers are working to mitigate mankind's ever-increasing footprint on the environment surrounding Earth.
The ISS, which can be easily spotted as a very bright, moving star as it passes overhead, remains a point of great pride and inspiration for men, women and children across the globe. Moving forward, research carried out on the station will continue to better the lives of the people below, and will serve as a vital part of NASA's future manned mission to the Red Planet.
Anyone wishing to view the station with the naked eye can visit a dedicated NASA webpage to find out exactly when and for how long the ISS will be visible from their location.
Source: NASAView gallery - 12 images