Space cemetery

Where do old spacecraft go to die? Into a graveyard orbit, or into the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Satellites that aren’t in use are a danger – both to other satellites and to anyone caught underneath them when they fall out of the sky. To deal with this danger, old and defunct satellites are boosted to an orbit outside the range of other spacecraft, the “graveyard orbit,” or dropped to an orbit that will eventually cause them to crash down to Earth, the “disposal orbit.”

Sending spacecraft crashing down into a populated area is considered rude. So large de-orbiting targets the part of the planet most distant from most humans: the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean, roughly midway between New Zealand and South America. It’s called the spacecraft cemetery, and it’s where Russia’s Mir space station and hundreds of smaller satellites ultimately came down. That area is going to be a goldmine for future marine archaeologists.

Speaking of graveyard orbits, did you know that the first nuclear reactor we shot into space is still there? The reactor shut down, so they moved it into an out-of-the-way orbit and just left it up there. Something to look forward to in 4,000 years, which is when it finally comes back down to Earth.



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