Engineers usually place decommissioned spacecraft into graveyard orbits to reduce the likelihood of colliding with active satellites or even other spacecraft.
However, larger objects like space stations that don’t explode upon reentry are sent to a spacecraft cemetery located at Point Nemo in the Pacific Ocean.
What is a spacecraft cemetery?
Spacecraft cemeteries are designated places where decommissioned satellites and other spacecraft go to die, like Point Nemo in the far-flung Pacific Ocean East of New Zealand. There, you’ll find rocket parts, dead satellites, and even entire space stations waiting their time before being sent off into what has come to be known as “graveyard orbit,” according to NPR reports.
If a satellite is too large to completely disintegrate upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, controlled “deorbit maneuvers,” commonly referred to as a crash landing, may be utilized. This was the fate of Russian space station Mir and China Tiangong-1 prototype outpost in 2001 – however most debris dissipated into small pieces before dispersion across Earth’s oceans.
Why is it important to have a spacecraft cemetery?
Many pieces of man-made space debris orbit Earth, which could endanger operational satellites and spacecraft not yet completed their missions. Deorbiting is the process used to remove them from orbit.
At the core of it all lies the responsibility to ensure any debris does not endanger humans or property, which is why a remote part of the ocean serves as a decommissioning location for large spacecraft like Russia’s Mir and China’s Tiangong-1 as well as cargo crafts like NASA Progress Resupply Vehicles and Northrop Grumman Cygnus modules.
NASA chose a location called Point Nemo in the South Pacific Ocean that is remote from any land mass or shipping traffic in order to increase chances that any debris which hits something will burn up in our atmosphere before it can cause harm on the surface.
What are the benefits of having a spacecraft cemetery?
Spacecraft cemeteries offer an environmentally responsible method of disposing of satellites that no longer serve their purpose, decreasing the chance of collision with working satellites as well as creating additional space debris which must eventually be cleaned up.
Propellant rockets offer an economical and controlled alternative to atmospheric launches; in addition, operators are better able to plan where debris may end up landing and can ensure no harm comes to inhabited areas.
Point Nemo has been the designated reentry spot since 1971 and currently hosts 161 spacecraft, such as Russian Progress resupply vehicles, America’s Skylab experimental station, and China’s Tiangong-1 prototype outpost. Due to being isolated and free from shipping traffic, risk for humans is minimized when returning from space; deep ocean waters also protect wildlife from being hurt by debris impacts while remaining neutral territory far from any nation’s territorial claims.
What are the disadvantages of having a spacecraft cemetery?
Experts agree that while placing dead spacecraft into graveyard orbit is safer for working satellites than allowing them to fall into Earth’s atmosphere, this practice generates additional trash in space that poses a risk to future exploration. Increased debris increases collision risks which could potentially destroy or damage more satellites in orbit.
As part of their effort to reduce space junk, most nations’ space agencies now send defunct satellites into a spacecraft cemetery when they reach the end of their lifecycle. A remote stretch of Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand known as Point Nemo (Latin for “No one”) contains over 263 sunken spacecraft; among these six Russian Salyut space stations and Mir space station remain, as well as several Japanese HTV cargo spacecraft, Tiangong-1 Chinese space station that China lost control over in 2016 all four kilometers below surface in an ocean with few islands or sparse shipping traffic.