If you were looking dispose of some trash from space, where might you do that? While you might think a normal landfill would be an economic place or simply just an open field, it turns out that actually getting the space trash to those locations would be quite hard.
The reality of where much of the world's space trash go is a much more interesting story. It happens to go to the most remote place on the planet. A place called Point Nemo.
The most remote location on earth
Point Nemo is Latin for 'No one', and it's located out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. At exactly 40 degrees 52.6 minutes south latitude and 123 degrees 23.6 minutes west longitude, there sits a place on earth that is further from any other population or landmass than any other point.
In numbers, that comes out to roughly 1,400 miles away from the nearest landmass. If you were looking to dispose of something you never wanted anyone to find, this is where you'd want to do it. This is exactly one of the reasons that NASA and other space agencies have decided that it is the perfect place to dispose of old satellites and spacecraft.
Not only does it make whatever you put there pretty unretrievable, perfect for high-tech top-secret electronics, but it also is the perfect place to crash land something from space. Since there's generally no one around or even anyone close, the worst that could happen crash-landing a satellite here is that a few seagulls get caught up in the wake.
Space junk started being dumped here in about 1971 and ever since it's been the prime location for crash landing space junk.
How to bury things at the space cemetery
All that various space agencies have to do to utilize the space cemetery is essentially plan to crash land something int the spot. Most satellites and other space trash will burn up in the atmosphere due to friction as it crashes. This ultimately means that not a whole lot of trash actually makes it to being buried at Point Nemo. However, when space agencies have to dispose of something larger than your standard satellite, then larger chunks do end up reaching the water's surface
One of the largest objects ever disposed of at the space cemetery at Point Nemo was the Russian space station Mir, crashed on 23 March 2001.
Another notable object disposed of at Point Nemo was the Tiangong-1. This was the first Chinese space station. After successfully launching in 2011 weighing 8.5 tons, China lost control of the station roughly 4 years later in 2016. After trying everything they could to regain control of the space station, it crashed into the space cemetery in April of 2018 after significant planning.
One interesting thing of note about Point Nemo is that astronauts aboard the International Space Station are likely closer to it than any other human. Since the ISS orbits roughly 360 kilometers about the earth, they become the nearest humans to the most remote place on earth quite frequently.
What is buried there?
Over the many decades that the space cemetery has been in use, a variety of space junk has been crash-landed here. In fact, between 1971 and today, at least 260 spacecraft have been dumped here with over half of that number coming in the last few years.
The spacecraft that survive re-entry at the space cemetery come to rest roughly 2 miles under the Pacific's surface. There are roughly 140 Russian resupply vehicles down there, the MIR space station, and as of lately, a SpaceX rocket or 2.
It should be noted though, that the space cemetery isn't exactly a precise mound of old spacecraft. The actual total of spacecraft laid to rest here are scattered many miles apart due to the imprecise nature of crash landing spacecraft into the ocean.
Each spacecraft itself also breaks apart into a variety of different smaller chunks that then spread out therein. Just one re-entry of a large spacecraft can extend across a 995-mile long area.
You might wonder to yourself why a place like Point Nemo is needed considering the vastness of space and the relatively low amount of free space here on earth. The simple fact of the matter is, however, that space junk is far more dangerous to our way of life than a few mounds of debris out in the ocean.
Why the space cemetery is needed
Around earth orbits a massive network of satellites that feed us everything from internet signals to GPS. Over 4500 active satellites orbit Earth, along with roughly 12,000 non-active manmade objects like rocket boosters, and more satellites are coming online each year. Space junk makes this area even more crowded.
As our orbit space gets more crowded, it's more likely that there will be collisions and crashes which have the ability to compound and take out satellite after satellite. Space junk, even relatively small space junk, has the ability to completely destroy multi-million dollar satellites orbiting the earth providing vital information.
The space junk that orbits the earth also stays there for quite a while. In many cases, they can stay there for thousands of years, making space travel and space communication harder and harder as time goes on.
The risks associated with space junk far outweigh any earthly risks of crash landing it in the most remote place on earth. This is why it is essential that the space cemetery remains operational and in use by space agencies around the world.