It’s staggering to know that right now, there are estimated to be between 4,000 and 6,000 satellites circling our small planet. About 60% of those are obsolete satellites and roughly 40% are operational. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), determined that 2,666 operational satellites circled the globe in April of 2020.

As well as the satellites, as of January 2019, more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm, and around 34,000 pieces larger than 10 cm (3.9 in) were estimated to be circulating in space around the Earth. Apart from all these orbiting objects, the various rockets and space stations that have been sent skyward, are also an issue once they have become obsolete. However, rather than continuing to orbit and add to the space junk, larger spacecrafts are de-orbited and disposed of back on earth, or rather, under the ocean.


The “Point Nemo Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility” (officially known to space agencies as the “South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area”) covers an area of 22 million square kilometres and is located 2778km (1726miles) east of New Zealand and 3987km (2477miles) from South America between Easter Island and Pitcairn Island. It was declared in 1992 by Croatian-Canadian engineer Hrvoje Lukatela who used a geo-spatial computer program to figure out the remotest place on Planet Earth. In fact, the crew on the International Space Station orbiting 400km (248miles) above earth are the closest humans to this no-man’s land. An aerospace engineer and atmospheric re-entry specialist told the media, “It’s a great place to put things down without hitting anything.”


Point Nemo (‘Nemo’ is Latin for ‘no man’) is where spacecraft that have reached the end of their usefulness are routinely de-orbited and destroyed. It is an ideal resting place for old space stations and the various pieces of equipment associated with them because of its limited shipping traffic and absence of human life. A total of more than 263 spacecraft were disposed in this area between 1971 and 2016.

The obsolete space station MIR and 6 Salyut space stations are among the space vehicles that have been disposed of in this ocean cemetery. Other spacecraft that have been routinely ditched in the region are various cargo rockets including the Russian Progress cargo craft, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency H-11Transfer Vehicle and the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer vehicle. Smaller satellites don’t usually end up at Point Nemo because the heat from the friction of the fall to earth at thousands of miles per hour burns them up leaving nothing to ‘bury’..

To sink something to the depth of 3.2km (1.9miles) of water at Point Nemo, space agencies have to time a crash over that area. Space stations made of titanium scaffolding and glass-fibre-wrapped fuel tanks travel at more than 290kph (80mph) as they slam into the deep waters of the space cemetery.

China has had problems mastering this feat. Their first space station Tiangong-1weighed over 8 metric tons. It dived to earth and missed the spot. In April 2018, the communist power also lost control of their 12-metre-long orbital laboratory which crashed in a fiery mess into the Pacific Ocean. Again, this year, their returning rocket plummeted back to earth out of control.


Between 1971 and mid-2016, space agencies all over the world dumped at least 260 spacecraft into the space cemetery. Buried under water along with the MIR Space Station are more than140 Russian re-supply vehicles, several European Space Agency’s cargo ships and even a SpaceX rocket. But these obsolete spacecrafts aren’t neatly stacked together at the bottom of the ocean. Large objects usually break apart leaving a huge footprint of debris that extends 1600km (994miles) long and dozens of kilometres wide. With the land-free zone around Point Nemo covering over 17 million square km, it’s not exactly easy to locate a specific item from a dead spacecraft and the chances are extremely slim of anyone getting hit by debris regardless of where the spacecraft break up on Earth. A woman was brushed on the shoulder in Oklahoma by space debris but she is the only person currently recorded who’s been touched by a piece of space debris. A bigger risk is leaving dead spacecraft in orbit.


Although thousands of satellites currently orbit Earth at various altitudes, more are being frequently sent up including vehicles from Elon Musk and SpaceX and also Kiwi rocket man, Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab.

As well as all those satellites, there are thousands of uncontrolled rocket bodies orbiting earth, along with more than 12,000 artificial objects larger than a fist, not to mention the countless screws, bolts, flecks of paint and bits of metal.

The worst kind of risk, according to the European Space Agency, is when a piece of space junk hits another piece, especially if the objects are large. A collision occurred in 1996, another in 2009, and two in 2013. Along with the intentional destruction of space satellites, these accidental collisions have generated countless pieces of space debris that can threaten satellites in nearby orbits years later.


Debris can float in space for hundreds of years. Removing old spacecraft from orbit is key to preventing the formation of space junk, and many space agencies and corporations now build spacecraft with systems to de-orbit them and land them in the spacecraft cemetery.

New technologies and methods to remove old, uncontrolled items that are already up there posing a threat are currently being considered. The idea of ownership is an issue. No nation has permission to touch another nation’s satellite as it could even be deemed an act of war. Nations need to agree on a treaty that spells out laws-of-the-sea-like salvage rights to dead or uncontrollable objects in space before things run out of control up there in the crowded space above our small planet.

Ceidrik Heward

Speak Your Mind