29Oct2017

Spacecraft Cemetery The Most Remote Place On Earth

Point Nemo: The most remote spot in Earth's oceans is a spacecraft graveyard

Point Nemo: The most remote spot in Earth’s oceans is a spacecraft graveyard

It’s considered the most remote place on Earth and for that very reason its home to what NASA calls the world’s “spacecraft cemetery”. Also known as Point Nemo, Latin for “no one”, it’s official name is: The oceanic pole of inaccessibility.

Sitting in the Pacific Ocean, the watery location earns the title for being the furthest point from land on our planet. And that’s precisely why space agencies around the world like to use it as a final resting place for a myriad of spacecraft that once orbited above us. At about 2400km from any spot of land, it’s “pretty much the farthest place from any human civilisation you can find,” NASA says.

Basically, you can aim to crash satellites and other space objects over the location without any danger of hitting anybody, or anything. When the International Space Station gets decommissioned in the coming decades, Point Nemo is where it will go to die. If all goes according to plan, it will rest about 4km below the waves, where few fish swim.

Between 1971 and mid-2016, space agencies all over the world dumped at least 260 spacecrafts into the region, according to Popular Science. And that number has risen significantly in the last few years. The Russians are actually the biggest dumpers of spacecraft in the area including the country’s former space station, Mir, that was deorbited in 2001 and sent to the underwater cemetery after spending 15 years in space.

A 1996 photo shows the Russian Mir space station orbiting the earth.

A 1996 photo shows the Russian Mir space station orbiting the earth.Source:News Limited

Not all spacecrafts end up in a watery grave in the vast stretch of the South Pacific Ocean. Many smaller satellites don’t make it because the heat from the friction of the air burns up the satellite as it falls toward Earth at thousands of kilometres an hour. Alternatively, objects in very high orbit often use their last bit of fuel to blast themselves farther into space, where they can drift through the cosmos without posing a threat.

The real problem is when we lose control of our celestial vehicles — which has recently occurred with China’s first space laboratory, the Tiangong-1. Launched in September 2011 it served as a base for space experiments and hosted two three-person crews. But in September last year, Chinese officials said they had lost control of the space lab and expected it to crash into Earth between now and April 2018.

China claims the 10-metre longship, which weighs 8500kg, will likely burn up during its re-entry to Earth but others have expressed doubt about the claim, prompting concern over the site of a potential crash landing.

SPACE JUNK COULD DERAIL GLOBAL SOCIETY

Space graveyards like Point Nemo can act like a safety net for space objects that don’t burn up entirely upon crashing back to Earth — something which is more important than ever as scientists work to clean up the junkyard sitting hundreds of kilometres above us. In May, global scientists gathered in Canberra to brainstorm a solution to the growing amount of space junk that litters low Earth orbit.

Space has become so crowded with old defunct satellites, spent rocket parts and other man-made waste that a disastrous collision that damages valuable infrastructure is fast becoming inevitable, scientists fear. Every time we watch TV, use GPS or check the weather, we are relying on satellite technology. The problem is as we keep sending them up there, the eventual pile of orbiting junk gets bigger. Some predictions claim space could become unusable in as little as 20 years.

A map showing the path of Russian space station Mir descending into the earth's atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean on March 23, 2001.

A map showing the path of Russian space station Mir descending into the earth’s atmosphere into the Pacific Ocean on March 23, 2001.Source:News Limited

It’s estimated that as many as 170 million pieces of debris are circling the Earth at speeds in excess of 27,000km/h. The most worrying part is we only know where 22,000 of them are — putting $900 billion worth of satellites and space infrastructure at risk. The CEO of Canberra’s Space Environment Research Centre (SERC), Ben Greene, said the lack of data on space junk was a major concern.

“There is so much debris that it is colliding with itself, and creating more debris. A catastrophic avalanche of collisions which could quickly destroy all orbiting satellites is now possible,” he said. A robust tracking system remains a top priority for researchers tackling the issue.

Astronomers hope that laser technology, which is used to track space debris, can also prove useful in eradicating some of the smaller pieces by being used to gently push bits of space junk, causing them fall back to Earth more rapidly and burn up in the atmosphere. Source: News

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