The Spacecraft Graveyard

Old satellites and spacecraft reenter Earth’s atmosphere daily, often burning up harmlessly in midair but larger ones posing risks to people and buildings on the ground. To reduce that risk, many nations de-orbit their old spacecraft over a remote region in the Pacific known as Point Nemo.

What are they?

Though smaller satellites in low orbit usually burn up upon landing on Earth, larger spacecraft such as the International Space Station (ISS) and cargo spacecraft need to be deliberately deorbited so they may crash at their end of life to reduce any likelihood that any remaining debris might strike a functional satellite or crewed spacecraft and cause harm.

Spacecraft operatorss choose a remote area in the Pacific known as “The Spacecraft Graveyard” to dispose of their old satellites, known as a satellite graveyard. This part of the ocean is far removed from civilization and provides low levels of oxygen which help slow corrosion rate.

When the International Space Station is retired in 2031, its remains will be scattered here among hundreds of other spacecraft that have died and collected dust over time. But what will future archaeologists make of this watery graveyard? Watch this video and see for yourself.

Why are they there?

Once a satellite reaches its final days of life, its dangerous remnants may pose threats to other spacecraft in orbit. Engineers have two options when dealing with an obsolete satellite’s demise – either blast it back toward Earth to crash back down onto it’s atmosphere for destruction; or put it into what NASA refers to as “graveyard orbit” which requires less fuel and reduces collision risks with functioning satellites and objects in space.

Since 1971, hundreds of decommissioned satellites and spacecraft have been transported to Point Nemo in the Pacific Ocean in an effort to reduce risks from falling objects striking people or infrastructure below and decreases debris in low Earth orbit. Unchecked, this debris could threaten future launches or even hit crewed spaceships; hence scientists are working hard on solutions to clean it up.

What do they look like?

Weather satellites don’t last forever. Over time they run out of fuel and begin disintegrating as their orbit changes; eventually they fall out of orbit altogether and disintegrate completely.

Small parts of a satellite will typically disintegrate upon reentering the atmosphere, while larger ones like space stations need to be brought down safely so they don’t collide into anything (and potentially damage active satellites). Many nations and agencies decided to deorbit their older crafts by steering them into an isolated patch of Pacific Ocean known as “Point Nemo”.

Since 1971, over 260 retired spacecraft have ended up at this site since 1971; when the International Space Station retires in 2031 it will join them.

How do they get there?

As spacecraft from the International Space Station reach their end of life, they’re being sent to Point Nemo in South Pacific Ocean for disposal. A Flinders University associate professor known as a self-described “space archaeologist” told US podcast Atlas Obscura this was an effective way to reduce debris circling in space that may collide with functioning satellites or even crewed spacecraft and cause issues in orbit.

Engineers often lower satellite orbits to allow it to naturally reenter Earth’s atmosphere – this process is known as deorbiting and requires one last fuel burn.

However, this process is impractical for higher orbit satellites such as NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), as they require more maneuvering fuel. Instead, NOAA employs what’s known as the 25-year rule to put them to rest; when they return home they heat up from friction with air and disintegrate.

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