Today I Discovered: The Spacecraft Cemetery

Where do spaceships go when they die?

The place on Earth that is farthest from land is known as ‘Point Nemo’, a lifeless, desolate area in the Pacific Ocean where currents and wind conspire to ensure even the ocean life is scant. Officially, the point is given the moniker: The Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. It is over 2,400 kilometres away from the nearest land mass.

Being so far from land, it’s the perfect place to ‘bury’ spacecraft – a process that involves slowly taking them out of orbit, bringing them closer to the gravitational field of the Earth and letting them crash into the ocean.

Yes, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a graveyard for dead space craft.

Since 1971, space agencies have been dumping their spacecraft in the region surrounding Point Nemo, letting the pieces of wreckage sink some four kilometres to the ocean floor.

When a space craft, space station or transfer vehicle re-enters the atmosphere, the heat generated is so intense that the craft burns up. That can make for some stunning sky displays as pieces of the fiery debris streak across the horizon.

There is little risk to safety, with the uninhabited area surrounding Point Nemo covering some 17 million square kilometres. It’s a huge target for space agencies to hit, so it’s no wonder some 263-plus spacecraft have been disposed of at the remote location.

However, there are some worries associated with bringing spacecraft back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

They can go rogue.

In 2011, China launched the Tiangong-1 ‘space lab’ into orbit, a bulky station that would allow them to test various mechanisms and procedures in orbit, before they launch their own permanent space station in five years time. Originally planned to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere last year and burn up in the atmosphere, it was speculated that the space station may be out of control – that China may not be able to control its orbit any longer.

However, just this week, one of China’s top engineers suggested this is not the case. The engineer, from the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, suggests it will mostly burn up on re-entry but the remaining pieces will ‘fall into a designated area of the sea.’

It’s important for us to bring these dead or dying space craft back to Earth because, as we launch ever more into orbit, the area becomes crowded. As this ‘space junk’ darts around the Earth, it poses problems to satellites and space stations which it can bump into and damage.

Huge space craft can’t just hang out up in space and keep a watchful eye on the Earth. Thus, having tread further than most humans ever will, they’re final mission is to come back down.

And so they do, in a remote part of the ocean, home to Cthulhu.

Vale, spacecraft.

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!

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