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, 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.
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.