How To Dispose of a Spacecraft

Wednesday December 06, 2017 Written by garry

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The grim reality is that despite zero-gravity, most of what goes up into space must still come down. But down where, exactly? Smaller objects usually disintegrate upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere, but not so the larger ones.

One solution thought to be slightly more appealing than spraying giant spacecraft debris over land was to dispatch it into the ocean. Since the 70s, the MO of many space agencies has been to do this over the Pacific. They even gave the specific area a name, ‘Spacecraft Cemetery’, on account of some 263 spacecraft having been dumped there between 1971 and 2016.  

The cemetery exists at Point Nemo, also known as the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. It’s the spot furthest from human habitation – the nearest land mass is 2,250 kilometres away. But if you were planning to go deep sea diving to collect yourself a space junk souvenir for the pool room, you’d probably have trouble locating much, as spacecraft resigned to the depths there break up into countless pieces and scatter over hundreds of kilometres. Oddly enough, the closest people to the area are the inhabitants of the International Space Station; they orbit 360 kilometres above Point Nemo 16 times a day.

The Pacific isn’t the only spacecraft graveyard though. Many satellites are sent into graveyard orbit, a kind of limbo area a few hundred kilometres away from the operational zone, to avoid the risk of the space junk colliding with working spacecraft. Either way, it seems like a pretty grim and lonely fate for such revered contraptions, their final resting place in either a desolate watery grave, or a no-go zone orbit, far from earth.