In a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean southeast of New Zealand, the broken remains of space stations and robotic freighters litter the ocean floor, 4km below the waves. The world’s space agencies call this region the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area. But it’s also called the Spacecraft Cemetery.
There are no islands in these waters, the nearest shores are thousands of kilometres away, and shipping traffic is relatively light here. It’s an ideal place for spacecraft to plunge back to Earth and die, far from any humans that might be injured by falling debris.
The Spacecraft Cemetery is the final resting place of 145 of Russia’s Progress autonomous resupply ships, four of Japan’s HTV cargo craft, and five of the ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicles. Six Russian Salyut space stations and the venerable Mir space station lie alongside the freighters that once supplied them.
There’s a lot of space history down there, but of course, none of these spacecraft are just sitting neatly on the ocean floor in one piece. Or even two pieces. Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere is a violent, destructive process for any object that tries it, whether it’s a meteor or a space station. Plunging into the atmosphere at high speed generates enough heat to burn up even rock or metal. That’s why so few large meteors make it to Earth; most of their mass burns away as they fall through the atmosphere. That’s also why piloted vehicles like the Space Shuttle or the Soyuz capsules are built with thermal shielding, to protect the spacecraft and its occupants on the way down.
Autonomous spacecraft like the Progress or ATV cargo ships weren’t built to survive re-entry, so the heat of hitting the atmosphere is inevitably fatal. The first of the ESA’s ATV ships, the aptly named Jules Verne, broke up about 75km above the Spacecraft Cemetery on September 29, 2009. It took 12 minutes for the remaining fragments of Jules Verne to splash into the Pacific. NASA observed Jules Verne‘s fiery interment from two planes, a DC-8 and a Gulfstream jet, along the re-entry path, which means you can watch this video of a spacecraft’s final descent, shot from midair.