Spacecraft Cemetery: A watery grave

Spacecraft Cemetery is located 3900km southeast of Wellington. Photo / screenshot
Spacecraft Cemetery is located 3900km southeast of Wellington. Photo / screenshot

Thousands of kilometres off New Zealand's coast, at the bottom of the most remote area of the Pacific Ocean, the broken-up remains of spacecraft rest in a watery grave.

Known as the Spacecraft Cemetery, the area is located 3900km southeast of Wellington and is home to the scattered remains of 161 space stations and robotic freighters.

There are no nearby islands, with the closest landmass being Antarctica, 2700km south.

The remote location is close to Point Nemo, the point in the ocean that is furthest from land -- named after Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The remoteness makes the area an ideal location for spacecraft to make their final plummets to earth without risking injury to humans.

Before a spacecraft is due to descend, the space agency responsible will notify aviation and maritime authorities in New Zealand and Chile, the countries responsible for the stretch of ocean.

The authorities are then responsible for issuing warning notices to pilots and merchant vessels in the area.

But sadly for Kiwi space-watchers, there is no way spacecraft debris can be seen from New Zealand as it plummets from the sky -- even if looking through a telescope.

"No, you can't see it," Stardome Observatory's Jill Jessop said.

"Where they bring them down, at Point Nemo ... is about 2500km in any direction to the nearest land. It's a really remote place and it's purposely chosen for that reason."

Re-entering the atmosphere at high speed means spacecraft break into pieces which are scattered far and wide. As a result, the cemetery spans thousands of kilometres in each direction.

The cemetery is 4km deep, pitch black and home to few fish. The marine life is limited to sponges, sea stars, squid, octopuses, whales and viperfish, with temperatures around 2-4C.

The current body count of the Spacecraft Cemetery includes six Russian Salyut space stations and the Mir space station, as well as the freighter ships that transported supplies to them.

There are 145 Russian Progress autonomous supply ships, which are used to ferry supplies to the International Space Station and return the outpost's rubbish to Earth.

The graveyard also has four Japanese HTV cargo craft and five European Space Agency (ESA) ATV transfer craft.

The largest spacecraft to make its final journey to the cemetery was the Russian Mir space station, which weighed in at 143 tonnes.

After starting to break up in the atmosphere about 95km above the Earth, only 20 to 25 tonnes of debris remained.

By Eli Orzessek of NZME. News Service

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