Dumping Spacecraft In The Middle Of Nowhere

The BBC has an interesting article on Point Nemo, AKA the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility, AKA the spacecraft graveyard. This is the place in the ocean that is furthest from land, in the middle of the usually stormy South Pacific. It’s as far out there as you can get without leaving the planet: about 2,688 kilometers (1670 miles) from the nearest dry land. Even the ocean floor is 4 km (2.5 miles) down; the closest human life is the International Space Station (ISS) astronauts flying 415 km (260 miles) above it. It is not near any shipping lanes or transport routes. It is, to put it bluntly, the middle of goddam nowhere. So, it is a perfect place to dump derelict spacecraft.

Since 1971, over 160 spacecraft have met their end in these chilly waters, from the fiery public end of the Mir space station to the secret death of numerous secret spy satellites. The article in question focuses on the Soviet satellites, but plenty of other countries dump their end-of-life satellites there, including trash from the ISS. The Chinese Taingong-1 space station crashed nearby, although that was more by accident than design. The ISS is scheduled to join its trash in a few years: the current plan is that the massive space station will be de-orbited and crashed near Point Nemo in 2030.

Will there be anyone to see it? When the Mir space station was de-orbited, some entrepreneurial companies offered flights to the area to catch a glimpse, but the best view was from the island of Fiji. So, start planning your trip now…

33 thoughts on “Dumping Spacecraft In The Middle Of Nowhere

    1. And I can’t help wondering how much longer public and private space agencies will judge it sensible-and ecologically responsible, assuming they (e.g. Musk? yeah, right) care about such things-to continue dumping space junk anywhere in the ocean. OTOH, for EOL of life purposes, how safe and practical to equip manned/unmanned space hardware with self-destructive explosives to be detonated after the device is sent x distance from earth? Of course, unless the junk has absorbed too much hazardous cosmic radiation, might another option be to retrieve the junk from the ocean and recycle it?

      1. Why explode it? One big piece is easier to track AND dodge than a cloud of micro-debris. And, to your point, this is already done for a lot of satellites, look up the graveyard orbit.

    2. Logically that would be as far as possible from the middle of nowhere. Conveniently on a sphere that’s a single point opposite the point in question. Ironically though that looks to be somewhere in west Kazakhstan, which I doubt is widely regarded as “far from nowhere”

  1. I still remember the MIR de-orbit from ~20 years ago.. It was so sad.
    And it felt so unfair back then.
    That venerable, rusty old space station had to make place for that new, shiny, all-white US space station, the ISS.
    (Yes, it’s international on paper, but other countries have little to say, for the matter.)

    Ironically, it was the first time the MIR boardcomputer and the control mechanisms worked perfectly fine.
    Or so it seemed back then, considering all the news about the malfunctions/shortcomings back then (it did still better than Skylab did!). It was an end of an era, too.
    Which made the whole experience a bit “mono no aware” – like, maybe.

    Anyway, it just came to mind. Orbital Complexes/Space Stations are among the biggest man-made space objects up there and a primary “customer” of the spacecraft graveyard.

    1. Skylab was an accident. It wasn’t due to come down and the new space shuttle was supposed to come up and handle the Skylab. Before the shuttle was ready, we had solar flare which caused the atmosphere to inflate, creating more drag for the Skylab and bought it down early.

      Solar flare is one thing we can’t plan ahead for.

      1. Apparently SkyLab landed on a rabbit.

        Wasn’t the last mission (which would have boosted SkyLab as well) cancelled because the US Prez (Ford?) wanted astronauts to shake hands with the commies in space instead?

        Could Google it, but eh.

  2. “So, start planning your trip now…”

    Certainty not. The ISS de-orbit is a big loss for all human kind, like MIR was before. It will be the last of its kind, like the fictional Babylon 5. It’s as if you’re going to watch a children hospital burn or the white house, while clapping your hands and whistling.
    On the other hand.. On TV, quite a lot of people watched two tall buildings collapse not too long ago. So maybe, it’s all relative and each to his own?

    1. If the government declared the white house end of life and burnt it down, it’d be the most watched fire in US history. There’s something cool that humans love about fire being the end of a story. It got up there on towers of fire, it’s coming back down in one. Poetic.

  3. What happened to saving money by reusing/repurposing? Oh that’s right… it’s the NASA bureaucracy of out with the old so we can get tax dollars for something new. (so how’s that new launch system going ?) Why can’t parts of the station be reused for even a private sector station? We keep leaving space junk in orbit. Maybe it’s long overdue that we clean up space. We’re one collision away from being trapped here on the ground.

    1. Do you want to sleep in a recycled space station from 1998? And Kessler syndrome is almost completely overrated, we are absolutely not “one collision away from being trapped on the ground.” We would need orders of magnitude more stuff for that to happen

      1. The romantic side of me, who likes random sorts of sci-fi…
        Thinks of a change of socks, a toothbrush plus some cans of Spam & water recycling?
        Add some sort of long term energy source (radioactive puck?) and solar collector.
        Kind of a cliched, “cabin in the woods” during winter, theme drifts through my heart here.
        But they never seem to mention the toilet paper in those movies!

          1. Somehow I’m thinking of the advertisement for “Frosty Tushie Scrapers”
            “Feels fresher than ordinary mint and they’re 1oo% flushable!”
            Plus, in a pinch, you can use them in your drinks.

            And don’t forget to try our new “Dry Ice Deluxe!” line, with micro crystals for that ultra-smooth feeling.
            Deep space approved for those moth-balled emergency outposts.

    1. Would there really be any benefit to that? Other than making those of us who are very sentimental feel better?
      Maybe in hundreds of years people would be able to visit it on the regular, if it hasn’t crumbled to dust. That might prove to be interesting for them, but there are probably better monuments we could loft into the void.

  4. The last thing you want is to put an uncontrolled craft into an orbit with other uncontrolled craft and just hope it doesn’t generate debris – sure the bulk of it would be limited to the graveyard orbit itself but some would go out of plane. Far better to tank it into the sea.

    1. Yes AND no. There’s already way too much hulky, spent hardware orbiting earth for safety’s sake. Either send it out some tens of thousands of miles away and have it nuke itself, or send it into the ocean-BUT then retrieve it and recycle it for its copper, gold, plastic and so on, just as we do with other electromechanical waste.

  5. Dumping space craft might worry some. What is more worrisome is dumping their exhaust throughout the upper atmosphere on a daily basis. The number of launches taking place is having a noticeable impact on the upper atmosphere. There is so little air up there that this is inevitable. However, though the upper atmosphere is thin, it plays a huge role in the electrodynamics, radiation protection, and even thunderstorm initiation on Earth. We had best do something ASAP rather than letting SpaceX destroy the home we live in.

  6. I don’t know why they didn’t just send all these spacecraft over the edge of the Earth and into the void where the turtles** are that hold up this world. NASA would have to be careful that nothing hits all the guards—you know, the ones who keep people from going near the edge, the ones who have to tread water all their lives.

    **No, they are NOT elephants! Faithless heathen…

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