- Large satellites, space stations, and other objects can pose a threat when they fall to the ground.
- As a result, many nations de-orbit old spacecraft over the most remote place on Earth, called Point Nemo.
- This ‘spacecraft cemetery’ is about 2,250km away from any piece of land and home to hundreds of dead satellites.
- Space agencies and companies are concerned about space junk and working on ways to prevent its formation and clean it up.
The most remote location on Earth goes by many names: It’s called Point Nemo (Latin for “no one”) and the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. Its exact coordinates are 48 degrees 52.6 minutes south latitude and 123 degrees 23.6 minutes west longitude.
The spot is about 2,250km from any land — making it the perfect place to dump dead or dying spacecraft. And that’s why it’s home to what NASA calls a “spacecraft cemetery.”
“It’s in the Pacific Ocean and is pretty much the farthest place from any human civilisation you can find,” NASA said.
Bill Ailor, an aerospace engineer and atmospheric reentry specialist, put it simply: “It’s a great place you can put things down without hitting anything.”
To “bury” something in the cemetery, space agencies have to time a crash over that exact spot. Smaller satellites don’t usually end up at Point Nemo because, as NASA explains, “the heat from the friction of the air burns up the satellite as it falls toward Earth at thousands of miles per hour. Ta-da! No more satellite.”
The problem is with larger objects, like Tiangong-1, the first Chinese space station, which launched in September 2011 and weighed more than 8 metric tons.
China lost control of the 12-metre-long orbital laboratory in March 2016, and after much anticipation it eventually crashed in a fiery mess over the southern Pacific Ocean in April 2018.
Good to know that all that falling spacecraft — like titanium scaffolding and glass-fibre-wrapped fuel tanks — can come crashing back to Earth at more than 290 kilometres per hour before slamming into the ground.
The dead-spacecraft dumping zone
Astronauts living aboard the International Space Station actually live closer to the graveyard of spacecraft than anyone else. That’s because the ISS orbits about 360km above Earth — and Point Nemo, when they’re overhead. (The nearest island is much farther away, thankfully.)
Between 1971 and mid-2016, space agencies all over the world dumped at least 260 spacecraft into the region, according to Popular Science. That tally has risen significantly since the year 2015, when the total was just 161, per Gizmodo.
Buried under more than 3.2 kilometres of water is the Soviet-era MIR space station, more than 140 Russian resupply vehicles, several of the European Space Agency’s cargo ships (like the Jules Verne ATV), and even a SpaceX rocket, according to Smithsonian.com.
But these dead spacecraft aren’t neatly tucked together.
Ailor said large objects can break apart into an oval-shaped footprint of debris that extends 1600km long and dozens of kilometres wide. With the land-free zone around Point Nemo stretching more than 17 million square km, it’s not exactly easy to pay your respects to a specific item of dead spacecraft.
While not all spacecraft wind up in the cemetery, the chances are extremely slim that anyone would get hit by debris regardless of where the spacecraft break up on Earth, Ailor said.
“It’s not impossible, but since the beginning of the space age… a woman who was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma is the only one we’re aware of who’s been touched by a piece of space debris,” he said.
A bigger risk is leaving dead spacecraft in orbit.
The pernicious threat of space junk
While some 4,000 satellites currently orbit Earth at various altitudes, and there is space for more — like the thousands of internet-providing satellites from Elon Musk and SpaceX — it is getting crowded up there, especially considering the threat of space junk.
In addition to all those satellites, there are thousands of uncontrolled rocket bodies orbiting earth, along with more than 12,000 artificial objects larger than a fist, according to Space-Track.org. And then there’s the countless screws, bolts, flecks of paint and bits of metal.
“Countries have learned over the years that when they create debris, it presents a risk to their own systems just as it does for everybody else,” Ailor said.
The worst kind of risk, according to the European Space Agency, is when a piece of space junk accidentally hits another piece, especially if the objects are large.
Such satellite collisions are rare but do happen — one occurred in 1996, another in 2009, and two in 2013. Along with the intentional destruction of space satellites, these accidental collisions have generated countless pieces of space debris that can threaten satellites in nearby orbits years later.
“We’ve figured out that this debris can stay up there for hundreds of years,” Ailor said.
Getting old spacecraft out of orbit is key to preventing the formation of space junk, and many space agencies and corporations now build spacecraft with systems to de-orbit them (and land them in the spacecraft cemetery).
But Ailor and others are pushing for the development of new technologies and methods that can remove the old, uncontrolled items that are already up there posing a threat.
“I’ve proposed something like an XPRIZE or a Grand Challenge, where would you identify three spacecraft and give a prize to an entity to remove those things,” he said.
The most important hurdle to clear, though, may be politics on Earth.
“It’s not just a technical issue. This idea of ownership gets to be a real player here,” Ailor said. “No other nation has permission to touch a US satellite, for instance. And if we went after a satellite … it could even be deemed an act of war.”
Ailor said nations need to come together to agree on a treaty that spells out laws-of-the-sea-like salvage rights to dead or uncontrollable objects in space.
“There needs to be something where nations and commercial [companies] have some authority to go after something,” he said.
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