Way back in Episode #32, we explored Poles of Inaccessibility. These geographic curiosities are the spots on continents or countries that are the farthest from some criterion, usually the ocean.
In North America, the point farthest from any major sea lies in South Dakota, 1,030 miles from salty water. We can also measure the inverse: the spot in an ocean farthest from land. That glorious locus goes by the name of Point Nemo.
Named for Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility bobs in the southern portion of the Pacific Ocean. Draw a circle of radius 1,670 miles and you will just touch the nearest dry spot of the planet. Point Nemo is so remote that the nearest human being is often someone chilling in the International Space Station as it passes overhead.
A second literary connection lurks at Point Nemo. H.P. Lovecraft pinpointed the underwater city of R’yleh in The Call of Cthulu at the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility. But Point Nemo is home to far more than just a hibernating, malevolent being with the head of an octopus and the body of a dragon.
As we learned in the previous issue, The Sky Really Is Falling, the Chinese Space Agency essentially took a “let’s hope to be lucky” approach to the uncontrolled reentry to one of their giant rockets. Fortunately for humanity, the Long March craft plunged into the Indian ocean, sparing the lives of millions of people who happened to live in a large swath of the zone of possible re-entry.
Also, fortunate for humanity, Point Nemo has yet another familiar moniker: The Spacecraft Cemetery.
Wouldn’t it be great if responsible space agencies spent some time thinking about the best place to jettison a craft that needed to come back to the planet? Thankfully, most nations have done just that. Where better to crash-land hulking, uncontrollable metallic masses than in the location farthest from human civilization? Enter the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area, AKA the Spacecraft Cemetery AKA Point Nemo.
As we discussed in the previous article, many spacecraft or parts of them are designed to burn up completely in the atmosphere if they cannot remain in space indefinitely. If a craft’s design precludes a tidy conclusion and it needs to return to Earth, Point Nemo is a logical spot on which to paint a bullseye. Obviously, no one lives there. Further, because of the exact location of Point Nemo few ships and airlines travel through the corridor. If the sky must fall, let it fall near Point Nemo.
Nations around the world have directed de-orbiting craft to the cemetery since 1971. Through 2016, 263 space objects crashed into the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area. The largest and most famous ship to meet Davy Jones in this region is the Russian space station Mir. In orbit, the station weighed 143 tons. After colliding with the planet’s atmosphere the hulk came in at just 25 tons. That mass would have been a huge problem had it come down in a populated area. Fortunately, scientists guided the remains to the Spacecraft Cemetery, where it now lies in repose.
Of course, it’s nigh impossible to land a craft on the exact coordinates of Point Nemo. The hundreds of ships lie strewn across the Uninhabited Area. But, just because the zone is uninhabited and most terrestrial craft avoid traveling through it, it’s not always empty. With a region approximately 3,000 meters by 5,000 meters, some ships are bound to be there.
According to Gizmodo, “A few days before a spacecraft’s de-orbit, the space agency who owns the spacecraft will notify aviation and maritime authorities in Chile and New Zealand, who share responsibility for traffic in the remote stretch of ocean. They offer information about expected re-entry times and where debris is likely to fall. Then the craft can begin its controlled plunge through the atmosphere to its final interment in these waters. It’s up to the aviation and maritime authorities to issue notices to pilots and merchant vessels, warning them to avoid the area.”
In a nice literary tie-in, in 2009, a European Space Agency craft called Jules Verne reentered the atmosphere before burial near Point Nemo. NASA filmed the descent via two airplanes, providing rare video of reentry from midair!
Of course, it’s not really great that we send massive electronic objects filled with all sorts of caustic materials and fuel to the bottom of the ocean. At the moment, oceanic death near Point Nemo seems like the best of all the non-optimal options.
But, until we devise a better method of dealing with these spacecraft, more spaceships will join Mir at the bottom of the ocean. This list of future burials includes the International Space Station, which will, someday, perish in the sea. The ISS is four times larger than Mir was, so the Uninhabited Area will be a necessity.
Current estimates put the ISS out of commission sometime around 2028. That date is closer than I would have imagined!
Further Reading and Exploration
This Watery Graveyard Is the Resting Place for 161 Sunken Spaceships – Gizmodo
This Is Where The International Space Station Will Go To Die – Popular Science
Where is Point Nemo? – NOAA
Eerie Facts About Point Nemo, The Most Remote Location On Planet Earth – All That’s Interesting