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‘Heavenly Palace-1’ is the newcomer of ‘spacecraft cemetery’

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China’s out-of-control space station plummeted back to Earth this morning and, as it turns out, it landed not too far from a famous resting place for old satellites and spacecraft, reported News.com.au (Australia).

Officials confirmed this morning that the defunct space station Tiangong-1 mostly burned up upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the South Pacific at about 10.16am AEST.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics declared that it plunged into the ocean northwest of Tahiti.

“It managed to miss the ‘spacecraft graveyard’ which is further south,” he said.

The graveyard he is referring to is a remote stretch of ocean that is often used to crash-land defunct satellites.

You may know of it as Point Nemo which is Latin for “no one”, or by its official name, the oceanic pole of inaccessibility.

It’s considered the most remote place on Earth and for that very reason it is home to what NASA calls the world’s “spacecraft cemetery”.

At about 2400km from any spot of land, it’s “pretty much the farthest place from any human civilisation you can find,” according to NASA and that’s precisely why space agencies around the world like to use it as a dumping ground for spacecraft that once orbited above us.

China’s Tiangong-1 had spiralled out of control and authorities were no longer able to guide its gravity-propelled return, but for vehicles still able to be managed for a controlled re-entry, it’s likely they will end up at Point Nemo.

When the International Space Station gets decommissioned in the coming years, Point Nemo is where it will go to die. If all goes according to plan, in 2024 it will rest about 4km below the waves near a number of its predecessors.

Between 1971 and mid-2016, space agencies all over the world have dumped between 260 and 300 spacecraft into the region.

“It is routinely used nowadays by the (Russian) Progress capsules, which go back and forth to the International Space Station,” European Space Agency space debris expert Stijn Lemmens told AFP.

Though not all spacecraft 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 towards 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.

In future, most spacecraft will be “designed for demise” with materials that melt at lower temperatures making them far less likely to survive re-entry and hit Earth’s surface.

Both NASA and the ESA, for example, are switching from titanium to aluminium in the manufacture of fuel tanks.

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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