Far from the New Zealand coast, approximately 3,300 kilometers away, in the Pacific Ocean, is one of the strangest cemeteries in the world: the Nemo Point.
The cemetery is in the heart of nobody’s land and there is no island – just water. But at the depth of four kilometers under the waves, the ocean floor is full of fragments and remains of old satellites, space stations, and spacecraft.
This place is called “spacecraft cemetery”. Space agencies all over the world send their satellites and spacecraft shut down.
When a satellite or a space station in orbit reaches the end of its operational life, there are two ways to withdraw such a device.
If the satellite has a very high orbit, like geosynchronous satellites, then the engineers push them further into space until they reach what is called “orbit-cemetery.”
This orbit lies a few hundred kilometers above the orbit of the farthest operational satellites. Here, the likelihood of colliding with operational space ships is practically null.
In the case of satellites in an orbit close to Earth, it is much easier to slow down and let them fall back on Earth. If the satellite is small, it will burn and it will completely disintegrate into the atmosphere, like hundreds of meteorites every day.
But if the satellite is large and there is a possibility that it will not burn completely, then there is a need for some more planning to withdraw it.
The Nemo Point is far from any human settlement
The idea is to guide the satellite to the ocean away from any mass of land and any human habitat. The satellite has to fall where there is no risk of hurting someone.
The chosen location must be far from the routes of the ships. There is such a place in the ocean and geographies call it the “ocean of inaccessibility”. This place in the ocean is also known as the “Nemo Point”, after Jules Verne’s famed character, “Captain Nemo.”
This point in the ocean is furthest away from any surface of land. In Latin, his name means “no one”, a proper name for such a remote and isolated place.
The Nemo Point is approximately 2.688 kilometers away from the closest three islands – Ducie Island (part of the Pitcairn Islands) to the north, Motu Nui (part of the Easter Islands) to the north-east and Maher Island (near the Antarctic coast) to the south.
In addition to being so far from any human settlement, Nemo has a low marine population.This is a good thing, because it would not be desirable for space debris to affect marine life.
The Nemo Point is located at the heart of what is called the South Pacific Current, a large and rotating ocean current. This rotating stream blocks the nutrients that come from the coastal waters and does not allow them to reach its center where Nemo is located.
This means that the Nemo point and the surrounding area are relatively devoid of life – a kind of ocean desert. In other words, it is the ideal place to throw away unwanted satellites and debris. Between 1971 and 2016, there were more than 263 “space burials” at Nemo.
MIR Space Station
Here, there are crash-free delivery vehicles that carry supplies to the International Space Station. Eventually, the International Space Station itself will be buried in these isolated waters when its life span is over.
The proposed withdrawal date is 2028, but there is a likelihood that we will see an extension of the station’s life. The biggest burial at Nemo took place on March 23, 2001.
At that time, the 135 million tons of Russian space MIR collapsed in the Pacific Ocean after 15 years of operation. During the orbital exit, MIR hit the atmosphere at an altitude of 100 kilometers.
Even in that rare air, some external elements on the MIR, such as the solar panels, were pulled out due to the impact of the air. The station broke into several fragments at an altitude of 90 kilometers.
Fragments of flames could be seen from the Fiji Islands in the night sky. When Mir collapsed in the ocean, only 20 or 25 tonnes of the entire space station remained.
The European Space Agency’s “Jules Verne” Automatic Transfer Vehicle (ATV) disintegrates into the Earth’s atmosphere on September 29, 2008, over an uninhabited Pacific Ocean section southwest of Tahiti
So the “spaceship cemetery” does not shelter intact space satellites and stations to grace the ocean floor. Remnants are scattered over hundreds and even thousands of kilometers.
When MIR disintegrated into the atmosphere, it left behind a debris of 1,500 kilometers and 100 kilometers wide.
“Even in the case of controlled crashes, it can not be a straight-ahead landing,” reminded Holger Kragg, head of ESA’s ESA. The statement was made before the ESA’s third ATV trip in orbit in 2013.
“The disintegration process is such that we have to make sure that a fairly large area is available to make sure the fragments will fall into the desired area because they will not fall into one place at all. “
That’s why Nemo was chosen. Located at 2,688 kilometers from the nearest ground mass, the Nemo Point gives space engineers a considerable margin of error.