Ever wondered what happens to old satellites? After all, considering that over 4,000 satellites currently orbit Earth, the old ones can’t be simply left to float in outer space. This would create a lot of loose debris. So where do they go when they die?
Satellites have various jobs – they observe the weather, measure greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or study stars. However, they do not last forever. Eventually they wear out and stop working.
When a satellites’ time has come, there are two options. It is either sent farther away from Earth, using its last drop of fuel, or it is brought down to Earth. In the latter case, there are two outcomes. Smaller satellites simply burn in our planet’s atmosphere and they never reach land. Larger ones, such as space stations, are brought to remote areas on our planet, far away from land.
This area, the space craft cemetery, also known as the oceanic pole of inaccessibility, is in the South Pacific, about 2,700 Km south of the Pitcairn Islands, between Australia and New Zealand. It is one of the two poles of inaccessibility, being the place furthest away from land. The other pole of inaccessibility, the place on Earth furthest away from the ocean is considered to be the Dzungarian Gate, a mountain pass between China and Central Asia.
The satellite graveyard consists of approximately 260 satellites, scattered over an area of 1,500 square Km, on the ocean floor. The wreckage of the Russian Mir space station is also there, since 2001.
The region poses no threat to us, since the satellites ending up here have a controlled descent. There are some cases though when we lose contact with the space crafts, and therefore cannot control their trajectory. Such a situation will occur early next year, when the Chinese satellite Tiangong-1 will re-enter our atmosphere.
We do know that it will crash somewhere between Spain and Australia, but we won’t be able to pinpoint a precise location until a few hours before crashes.
However, these cases are rare and as far as we know, no one has been injured before.