European Space Agency (ESA)

Point Nemo is Planet Earth's Spacecraft Graveyard

Sometimes you've just got to get away, just go and spend some time in blissful solitude. Like, maybe take a sailboat out on the ocean and head for the point that's farthest from any land mass. Ahh, serenity. Until a communications satellite comes crashing down on your head, at least. Welcome to Point Nemo.

The Loneliest Cemetery

Point Nemo (coordinates 48.6º52.6'S, 123º23.6'W) is farther from land than any other point on Earth. You'll find it about halfway between the southern tip of South America and New Zealand. If you started from where Peter Jackson filmed the Shire, you'd be there in about 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles). We don't recommend simply walking there.

But while Point Nemo (and its on-land counterpart the Dzungarian Gate in Kazakhstan) is of interest to explorers and adventurers searching for the planet's most remote locations, it's of even greater interest to rocket scientists. That's because the distant spot is the perfect place to crash-land spacecraft. You're certainly not going to accidentally hit anybody's bungalow, and since ocean currents keep nutrients away, there aren't really a lot of fishing boats in the area either.

So what spacecraft have been interred in that underwater graveyard? Probably the most famous resident is the space station Mir, which broke up and crashed into the ocean in 2001. The whole station was about 143 tons, but burned down to about 20 tons by the time it got to the surface. Other spacecraft resting in peace (or pieces) include 145 of Russia's autonomous resupply ships, four Japanese cargo ships, and five of the European Space Agency's automated transfer vehicles. One of those last vehicles made a particularly big splash in 2009; after dropping off at the International Space Station for the last time, the Jules Verne put on quite a show for NASA as it broke apart on its way down.

And speaking of the International Space Station, it's on its way to Point Nemo as well. In 2020, ISS will come down to Earth, and it's going to make a big splash. It's 450 tons — more than three times as big as Mir — so here's hoping that they don't accidentally guide it towards anybody's backyard barbecue.

Point Nemo

Missing the Target

Not every spacecraft in history has ended up at Point Nemo. Sometimes, engineers on the ground lose contact with their orbiting satellites, and that means they can't control the spacecraft's descent. In 1991, Russia's Salyut-7 satellite came down in South America, and in 1979, the OG space station Skylab hit Australia with a massive crash.

It's not over, either. In 2018, China's Tiangong-1 is coming down, and it's probably not going to join its orbital companions, though it's impossible to tell at this point if it's going to hit land or water. Yeesh — at least we can take some solace in the fact that nobody has ever been hit by a falling satellite. Yet.

Not All Spacecraft Crash into Earth

Written by Reuben Westmaas December 4, 2017

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