While emailing with a colleague yesterday, I realized that I had never really written about the so-called “spacecraft cemetery” of the South Pacific, a remote patch of ocean water used as a kind of burial plot for derelict satellites.
As RT.com explains, the “spacecraft cemetery” is “an area of the South Pacific, approximately 3,900 km from the capital of New Zealand, Wellington. It is used to deposit the remains of spacecraft that do not burn up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, such as the carcass of the Russian Mir space station and waste-filled cargo ships. The remote location was specially selected for the disposal of spacecraft because of its depth of four km and distance from shipping lanes.”
[Image: The South Pacific “spacecraft cemetery”; image remade based on Wikipedia].
This vast crash site for abandoned Space Age artifacts might, in fact, become the final resting place for nothing less than the International Space Station. According to a slightly over-heated Russian press statement in 2011, the ISS could be deliberately crashed into the ocean as early as 2020.
As a spokesperson for Roscosmos said at the time, “After it completes its existence, we will be forced to sink the [International Space Station]. It cannot be left in orbit; it’s too complex, too heavy an object, it can leave behind lots of rubbish.”
Disastrously underfunded and devoid of human inhabitants by that point, this Mary Celeste of the near-earth orbit would meet a weird and watery fate, falling into the sea perhaps to seed some future artificial reef in the middle of nowhere.
[Image: The International Space Station, courtesy NASA].
While the actual physical effects of this—assuming it even happens—would be little more than to create several miles of scattered metal and occasionally floating fragments of this once-spaceborne super-structure, the very idea that there is an international spacecraft cemetery in the middle of the South Pacific is incredible.
Of course, the reality of this is underwhelming—there is no well-preserved graveyard of physically intact Space Age objects out in the middle of the ocean—but the imaginative potential of a place like this is almost unbelievable, as if all these ruins from the sky might someday become a UNESCO World Heritage Site: an underwater museum of global space ruins perhaps even sign-posted like the Baltic shipwrecks we looked at the other week.
Wreck-diving the fallen airlocks of the International Space Station! A new Tintern Abbey of the sea as giant squid swim by in the distance and submarine lights flash eerily through clouds of silt.
Rather than visit Cape Canaveral or Baikonur, you could instead slip, Captain Nemo-like, through the tides and currents of the remote ocean, peering ahead through thick glass as fantastic megastructures—rockets and satellites, offworld bases and labs—loom amidst the rock arches and mudflats of the planet’s strangest museum, this benthic necropolis of dead spacecraft, haunted by silent and uncomprehending marine creatures in the darkness.
Or maybe, is it the place where rockets are sent instead of going to space?