Tiangong-1 Was Supposed to Crash in a 'Satellite Graveyard' in the Ocean Called Point Nemo

Sunday, 01 April 2018 - 3:19PM
Space
Earth
Sunday, 01 April 2018 - 3:19PM
Tiangong-1 Was Supposed to Crash in a 'Satellite Graveyard' in the Ocean Called Point Nemo
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NASA
When things are going well, we typically dispose of satellites that need to be taken out of orbit by landing them as far away from civilization as possible.

And "as far as possible" is meant very literally here, as about 250 to 300 different spacecraft have all been crashed into a specific point in the southern Pacific Ocean, which is farther away from land than any other location on Earth. This satellite graveyard is technically called the "Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility", but it's more commonly called "Point Nemo" (after Jules Verne's captain from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, not the Pixar fish).

The nearest land from Point Nemo is about 1,500 miles (2,415 kilometers) away from any land, and its distant neighbors in the Easter Islands or New Zealand don't have to worry about getting hit if a falling spacecraft moves slightly off course. This is where Tiangong-1, the falling Chinese space station set to crash land somewhere on the Earth this weekend, was supposed to land if anybody had any control over it anymore.



If you haven't seen the falling Chinese space station all over the news, Tiangong-1 is currently falling out of orbit and due to its unusual movement (it's moving very quickly, but falling very slowly) combined with the erratic nature of our atmosphere, nobody can predict where it's going to land. The most widely accepted predictions narrowed down the crash time to today, but it's impossible to track it until its landed.

There's little chance of it causing any damage, but a falling spacecraft is a problem that space agencies usually attempt to avoid, and Point Nemo has become the premiere destination whenever scientists have enough control over the spacecraft that they can instruct it where to land once it falls from orbit, thanks to its remote nature.

In the past, objects as heavy as the Russian MIR space lab - which weighed 130 tons (120 metric tonnes) - have been dropped into Point Nemo, and unmanned supply ships to the International Space Station are frequently put to rest here as well.

In fact, if/when the day comes when the International Space Station is shut down, which could come as early as 2024, the current plan is to evacuate it and then drop it into Point Nemo so there's no risk of it causing any damage.



In the future, more spacecrafts are being designed to avoid having to crash into Earth at all once their job is done. A chunk of most satellites will burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry, but that still leaves a giant heap of metal falling through the sky. NASA and ESA have been transitioning from titanium to aluminum in objects like fuel tanks to minimize the giant spacecraft that will crash into the Earth.

What that hopefully means is that once we have even more satellites and space stations up in orbit, we won't have more situations like Tiangong-1.

Also, fun fact: Point Nemo is also the location of the fictional sunken city of R'lyeh in H.P. Lovecraft's short story, The Call of Cthulhu. Hopefully Cthulhu can't be woken up by having satellites dropped on him.
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