By Katie Hunt, CNN
Three thousand miles off the coast of New Zealand and 2,000 miles north of Antarctica, Point Nemo is so far from land that the closest humans are often the astronauts on board the International Space Station — that orbits 227 nautical miles above Earth. It’s precisely this remoteness that explains why the ISS, once it’s retired in 2030, will end its days here, plummeting to Earth to join other decommissioned space stations, satellites and space debris. This is the world’s space graveyard.
Spacefaring nations have been dumping their junk in the area around Point Nemo, named after Captain Nemo from Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea,” since the 1970s.
Also known as the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility or South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area, the exact coordinates of the world’s most remote spot were calculated by Canadian-Russian engineer Hrvoje Lukatela in 1992.
More than 263 pieces of space debris have been sunk in this area since 1971, including Russia’s Mir space station and NASA’s first space station Skylab, according to a 2019 study. They’re not intact monuments to the history of space travel but are likely fragmented debris scattered over a large area.
“This is the largest ocean area without any islands. It is just the safest area where the long fall-out zone of debris after a re-entry fits into,” said Holger Krag, Head of the Space Safety Programme Office at the European Space Agency.
Point Nemo is beyond any state’s jurisdiction and is devoid of any human life — although it’s not free from the traces of human impact. In addition to the space junk on the seafloor, microplastic particles were discovered in the waters when yachts in the Volvo Ocean Race passed through the region in 2018.
Space junk such as old satellites reenter the Earth’s atmosphere on a daily basis, although most of it goes unnoticed because it burns up long before it can hit the ground.
It’s only larger space debris — such as spacecraft and rocket parts — that pose a very small risk to humans and infrastructure on the ground. Space agencies and operators must plan well in advance to ensure that it falls to Earth in this far-flung bit of ocean.
In the case of the International Space Station, NASA said the ISS will begin maneuvers to prepare for deorbit as early as 2026, lowering the altitude of the space lab, with it expected to crash back to Earth in 2031. The exact timings of the maneuvers depends on the solar cycle activity and its effect on Earth’s atmosphere.
“Higher solar activity tends to expand the Earth’s atmosphere and increase resistance to the ISS’ velocity, resulting in more drag and natural altitude loss,” NASA said in a newly published document outlining plans for decommissioning the ISS.
Space agencies and commercial operators must also notify authorities in control of flights and shipping — usually in Chile, New Zealand and Tahiti — of the location, timing and dimensions of the debris fall-out zones. Around two flights per day pass through the air space, said Krag. These authorities produce standardized message sent out to air and sea traffic.
A bigger problem than the spacecraft that end up in Point Nemo, said Krag, is chunks of metal rocket stages and spacecraft making what’s known as an “uncontrolled reentry” into the Earth’s atmosphere.
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