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Crashing Nemo: NASA plans watery end for space station in 2031

NASA will aim for a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean nicknamed the "Spacecraft Cemetery" because it's a frequent target to safely de-orbit defunct spacecraft.
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Like the Mir and Skylab missions that came before it, the International Space Station will meet a watery end when it is finally retired from service.

In a report released Monday, NASA detailed how the agency will keep the International Space Station running through the end of this decade, before decommissioning it in 2031 by intentionally crashing the orbiting outpost into the southern Pacific Ocean.

NASA plans to aim for a region known as Point Nemo in the so-called South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area, an open stretch of water east of New Zealand. This remote part of the Pacific Ocean is sometimes nicknamed the "Spacecraft Cemetery," because it's a frequent target for space agencies and aerospace firms to intentionally de-orbit old or defunct spacecraft.

Controlled de-orbits are a crucial way to remove decommissioned space stations and satellites from low-Earth orbit, rather than letting them languish in space.

Most objects will burn up as they pass through Earth's atmosphere, but some fragments can survive. With its location far away from any landmasses, the area is considered a relatively safe place for falling space debris.

Construction began on the International Space Station in 1998 and completed in 2011. The project, designed to function as a science lab in low-Earth orbit, is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia’s Roscosmos space program, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

The space station was set to be retired in 2024, but the White House announced on Dec. 31 plans to extend operations at the orbiting outpost through 2030.

In its remaining years, NASA said it plans to continue conducting research aboard the ISS while also using the lab to support deep-space exploration. In its report, the agency said it will bolster commercial ventures to develop new destinations in low-Earth orbit.

"We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space," Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA headquarters, said in a statement.

Agency officials said in the report that NASA intends to de-orbit the International Space Station sometime in January 2031, after it is decommissioned.

It won't be the first time a space habitat has a fiery sendoff. The Russian Mir space station was de-orbited in March 2001, and most of the structure's surviving fragments fell over the southern Pacific Ocean.

More than two decades before that, NASA's first space station, Skylab, made an uncontrolled atmospheric re-entry, which means mission controllers had no way to steer or navigate the outpost as it fell back to Earth. Skylab plunged through Earth's atmosphere in July 1979, with fragments from the 77-ton station landing over the Indian Ocean and parts of Western Australia.

More recently, China's prototype space station, Tiangong-1, made an uncontrolled re-entry in April 2018, burning up over the southern Pacific Ocean. Last May, a section of a Chinese rocket fell back to Earth uncontrolled, scattering fragments over the Indian Ocean. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson criticized China at the time for failing to uphold "responsible standards" on space debris.

Earlier this year, part of a failed Russian rocket stranded in orbit fell to Earth uncontrolled, re-entering the atmosphere over the southern Pacific Ocean.