Ever wonder what happens to satellites and other space debris that make it back to Earth? Many burn up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, but the debris that remains has to go somewhere. This place is called the spacecraft cemetery, also known as the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area. Near Point Nemo, this place is 2,700 miles from the nearest landmass, Antarctica, and is free of islands and sees very little human activity.
The spacecraft cemetery is home to spacecraft, freighters, satellites, and space stations that have been retired from their jobs in space. At this point, the organizations and governments in charge of those galactic objects have two options; one is to use the remaining fuel in the object to send it further into space, and the other option is to use the fuel to send it crashing back to Earth.
Some retired space equipment can be sent out into graveyard orbit, which is about 22,400 miles above the Earth and 200 miles away from any other active satellites. This graveyard orbit option is chosen to keep space debris out of the way of active equipment flying in Earth’s atmosphere. Sending objects back down to Earth can leave a massive debris field, but as objects burn through Earth’s atmosphere this can also mean that most of their bulk is burned up upon re-entry.
The spacecraft cemetery has about 161 objects scattered about the sea floor, including the Russian Mir space station. These spacecraft are spread out over the extent of the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area, which reaches 3,000 kilometers north to south and 5,000 kilometers from east to west. Governments and space agencies like NASA work to direct space objects into this area, as it is less likely to have any human interference or cause much damage.
Whether we dispose of our space objects in the bottom of the sea or high out in space, experts agree that someone will have to deal with these pieces of space equipment eventually. In space these objects could crash into each other, affecting live satellites or space stations, while the bottom of the ocean remains a precious ecosystem we need to take care of. High above the spacecraft cemetery, more live satellites continue to fly.
There’s a Spacecraft Cemetery in the Pacific, Smithsonian