The Earth isn’t just a resting place for life. It’s also a final destination for many objects from space — including objects we humans have already launched up there. So, in order to make sure we don’t turn space into a game of zero-gravity Frogger, we’ve designated a section of the Pacific Ocean for the sole purpose of acting as a dumping ground for defunct satellites and spacecraft. It’s called the Spacecraft Cemetery.
On March 29, Russia’s Progress M-29M cargo spacecraft will uncork from the International Space Station and fly around by itself for a week as a scientific laboratory until sometime between April 3 and April 7. At that point, the craft will be de-orbited and crashed into a stretch of ocean 2,400 miles southeast of Wellington, New Zealand. The water it breaks on the surface will be unremarkable, but the rocket will sink to a part of the seafloor known as the Spacecraft Cemetery.
During its weeklong flight around the planet, Progress will be involved with the Izgib experiment, according to the Russian news agency TASS. Izgib is an effort to study gravitational environments in orbit by measuring micro-accelerations using sensitive accelerometers and gyroscopes aboard Progress.
Sure, that’s pretty neat. But back to the Spaceship Graveyard.
The watery cemetery has been used by Russia to sink its inoperable spacecraft for many years now. The region, formally known by the world’s space agencies as the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area, is one of the most remote regions of the ocean. There are no islands and almost no ships that travel through, and the nearest land mass is thousands of miles away.
The most famous inhabitant is the 143-ton space station Mir, which zipped around Earth from 1986 to 2001. But the Cemetery is also home to over 145 Russian Progress resupply ships, four Japanese HTV cargo craft, five ESA Automated Transfer Vehicles, and six other Russian Salyut space stations.
If James Cameron went out there with a sub and a camera crew, he wouldn’t get a Titanic-style tracking shot. None of the ships that have plunged the depths of the Cemetery have remained in one piece. Naturally, as they de-orbit and enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they break up into much smaller fragments. For instance, only about 20 to 25 tons of Mir actually touched the ocean and they did so in six different pieces. So don’t expect the new Progress ship to take a controlled dive into the Pacific during its reentry.
Earthlings also keep what’s called a “graveyard orbit” (also known as a junk orbit) in which spacecraft are moved at the end of their operational life to make sure they don’t collide with spacecraft we currently need. Graveyard orbits are losing popularity because a lot of orbital debris experts argue that they simply exacerbate the ever-increasing problem of space junk and do nothing to help remediation efforts.
Still, keeping a spaceship graveyard on the surface of this planet hardly seems like a sustainable solution, either. In any case, however, if you happen to have a good view of the sky above the south Pacific, you might see something neat falling into the water next month.