The Spacecraft Graveyard

spacecraft graveyard

Once a satellite or space station reaches its end of life, its final option may either be further space exploration (which requires more fuel), or controlled reentry back onto Earth – to minimize risks to people, officials select an isolated spot on our planet as the target for controlled reentry.

Point Nemo

Point Nemo, named for Jules Verne’s antisocial character Captain Nemo from his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Additionally, this place serves as an oceanic graveyard for satellites, rockets and space stations that no longer serve their original purposes.

Space debris expert Dr Holger Krag explains the rationale for selecting such an isolated location: to decrease the chances of any piece of debris striking an inhabited area. Engineers plan for spacecraft’s descents to crash into the South Pacific Ocean so it disperses into thousands of small pieces over an area that stretches for hundreds of miles, Popular Science reports.

From 1971 to 2016, over 263 spacecraft, such as European Space Agency cargo ships and Russia’s MIR space station were launched into orbit, including Russia’s MIR station. Within 10 years, when its components are dismantled and returned back down to Earth, the International Space Station will join their ranks.

The Kessler Effect

Spacecraft graveyards are collections of satellites and debris left by spacecraft that have reached their end of life, often left floating through space after reaching orbital decay. Such “space junk” floats unintentionally into space where it could pose dangers to active satellites; agencies like NASA have developed guidelines on what should happen to old and broken-down satellites in this regard.

Guidelines indicate that when a spacecraft’s mission has concluded, its regulations dictate either sending it back into Earth’s atmosphere and burning up there or placing it into what’s known as Graveyard Orbit – pushing it far enough away so as not to interfere with satellites currently in use.

At present, approximately one satellite reaches its end-of-life and crashes back down onto Earth every week, creating more debris in orbit that causes chain reactions that lead to even more debris being launched into space. This phenomenon is referred to as the Kessler Effect and groups like International Astronomical Union are advocating for more stringent regulations regarding how companies launch things into orbit.

Space Stations

Spacecraft de-orbiting and returning to Earth, typically disintegrates either due to heat from its descent, or they crash into the ocean. But for larger objects like the International Space Station that cannot be dismantled on their own, a dumping ground may be needed – since 1971, both the US and Russia have used Point Nemo in the Pacific as a dumping ground – also known as “Spacecraft Cemetery”, because its nearest shores are thousands of kilometers away and shipping traffic through this remote region is minimal.

Shooting dead spacecraft into a cemetery takes more maneuvering fuel, but according to Mika McKinnon of io9 it helps reduce space junk on Earth while decreasing risk to working satellites. Scientists hope that one day these systems can be utilized by space agencies as planned methods of disposal instead of the more accidental methods currently in use.

The Dead Satellites

The Spacecraft Cemetery is an isolated spot in the Pacific Ocean dedicated to burial of satellites that have reached their final years of life and cannot be reused again. It serves as our only repository for such debris from space.

Once a satellite or space station reaches its operational life’s end, when its mission has ended it’s placed in an orbit around 22,000 miles above Earth called a graveyard orbit – this allows it to stay clear from other objects in space and keep it out of harm’s way.

Volkert’s plan involves sending small spacecraft into space to grab non-functioning satellites and drag them back down into Earth’s atmosphere where they would burn up, using either harpoons, nets, magnets or any other means necessary to pick them up – while taking great care not to touch any functioning satellites in this process.

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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