Water Graves: Should We Be Abandoning Large Spacecraft Over Earth’s Oceans?

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With increasing regularity, Earth’s oceans are the drop zones for incoming remnants of space.

For decades, Russian Progress resupply spacecraft laden with tons of junk from the international space station (ISS) were intentionally directed to re-entries over the “spacecraft graveyard” of the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, Northop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo vehicles are filled with waste from the space station crew and ultimately abandoned over the South Pacific.

In the past, other orbiting facilities scrapped, such as Russia Mir space station and China’s Tiangong-1 prototype outpost – ended their lives over ocean waters. Then there’s the saga of the US experimental station Skylab, which fell to Earth in 1979, with odds and ends scattered across Australia’s southern coast.

Skylab: America’s first space station

And a huge piece of falling space junk will return to Earth in the not-too-distant future – the nearly 500-ton ISS. The plan is to bring down the ISS in a controlled manner over the uninhabited ocean zone of the South Pacific, a region around Point Nemo officially known as the “ocean pole of inaccessibility”.

This remote marine setting is approximately 1,450 nautical miles (2,685 kilometers) from the nearest dry land. The nearest terra venture is Ducie Island, part of the Pitcairn Islands, to the north; Motu Nui, one of the Easter Islands, to the northeast; and Maher Island, part of Antarctica, to the south.

Is dumping space junk on Point Nemo a good idea? Or can we do better?

Point Nemo (marked in red) in the South Pacific Ocean is farther from land than any other point on Earth.  It is also home to the world's largest

Point Nemo (marked in red) in the South Pacific Ocean is farther from land than any other point on Earth. It is also home to the largest “spaceship graveyard” in the world. (Image credit: PGC/NASA IBCAO Landsat/USGS/Google)

Untraditional insult

Britta Baechler is Senior Director of Ocean Plastics Research for Ocean Conservancy, a leading group seeking science-based solutions for a healthy ocean, wildlife, and communities that depend on ocean waters.

“From our point of view, it is certainly about that the ocean is still used that way as a dump,” Baechler said. “We cannot continue to dump our waste into the ocean, expecting it to work as it always has, for humanity and all life on Earth. In many ways, it’s a standout illustration of what’s been going on for so long.”

Baechler cautioned against viewing Earth’s ocean waters as “too big to fail” and stressed the need to look at the end-of-life scenario for everything humanity makes. For example, about 11 million tonnes of plastic pollution is thrown into the ocean every year. This is equivalent, she says, to a garbage truck dumping plastic into the ocean every minute of every day.

“Ingestion and entanglement of plastics in the ocean can also be a deadly encounter for many different types of marine life,” Baechler said. Likewise, the dumping of tires, metals, toxic fuels and other wastes into ocean waters has caused unforeseen problems and can have long-term consequences.

“At the end of the day, it just doesn’t create a great picture,” Baechler said. Given the composition of the ISS, both inside and out, there is a need to understand the impact of debris on the ecosystem and marine life, she added.

“It’s another non-traditional insult to the ocean. It’s a concern, and it’s not an appropriate use of the ocean,” Baechler advised.

Planet Earth: Facts About Our Home Planet

The Russian Progress 78 uncrewed freighter undocks from the International Space Station's Nauka module on November 25, 2021 to make way for the new Prichal docking module in this photo by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

The Russian Progress 78 uncrewed freighter undocks from the International Space Station’s Nauka module on November 25, 2021 to make way for the new Prichal docking module in this photo by cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov. Progress vehicles regularly return over the Pacific Ocean, laden with trash. (Image credit: Roscosmos/Anton Shkaplerov)

“There is no other safe alternative”

Dwight Steven-Boniecki is the director of the feature film “In Search of Skylab, America’s Forgotten Triumph.”

“The only option for the ISS is to deorbit,” Steven-Boniecki said. “Incidents of de-orbited spacecraft are rare enough not to cause major dilemmas when an ocean is used as an impact zone. Currently, this is infinitely more preferable than trying to target distant land masses. the friction of re-entry conveniently ensures most of the spacecraft is incinerated before it hits the ground/water.Choosing water as a landing area provides a safe way to clear debris.It there is no other safe alternative.

Steven-Boniecki said that in 1978-79 the procedure for deorbiting spacecraft was relatively unknown. But one thing was certain, he said: the mass hysteria caused by the prospect of crashing a spacecraft on its head.

“Skylab is arguably best known for fall from the sky and crashing in the remote areas of Esperance, Balladonia and Rawlinna in Western Australia,” Steven-Boniecki said.

In 1979, NASA attempted to crash Skylab into the Indian Ocean, avoiding any landmass altogether, Steven-Boniecki added.

“However, slight miscalculations resulted in parts of the space station impacting Western Australia a good 30 minutes after North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) [now North American Aerospace Defense Command] to announce[ed] Skylab as impacting the Indian Ocean!” he said.

A Cygnus space freighter, Northrop Grumman's commercial resupply vehicle, approaches the International Space Station.  When their time in orbit is over, the Cygnus vehicles are filled with discarded equipment and other junk to head for reentry over the ocean.

A Cygnus space freighter, Northrop Grumman’s commercial resupply vehicle, approaches the International Space Station. When their time in orbit is over, the Cygnus vehicles are filled with discarded equipment and other junk to head for reentry over the ocean. (Image credit: NASA)

Disposal of the ISS involves a number of issues, said Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, professor emeritus and editor emeritus of the Journal of Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Flags of Gabrynowicz Article 9 from 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which notes, in part, that parties to the treaty are required to “avoid harmful contamination” of space, “harmful interference” with the space activities of other signatories, and “adverse changes” to the Earth’s environment . All of these obligations are potentially applicable to an ISS return to Earth, she said.

A space object that has been in space and returned, like the ISS, could be carrying some type of extraterrestrial contamination, or it could shatter into pieces, Gabrynowicz said. “There are reservations here. But there is clearly a thought in the Treaty to protect the Earth and not to create harmful changes on our planet.”

Additionally, when the treaty was negotiated, the parties agreed that there would be no retrieval from space of space objects – a hands-off approach to avoid short-circuiting issues of seizing the material from someone for military purposes.

“That’s not true in the ocean. There is a very strong set of salvage laws, including in international waters,” Gabrynowicz added. “Once the ISS is in the ocean, there will be people who want to grab this stuff.”

Related: Construction of the International Space Station (photos)

The American Skylab space station at its peak in the mid-1970s.

The American Skylab space station at its peak in the mid-1970s. (Image credit: NASA)

Create a precedent ?

Another legal problem concerns the ISS agreement itself, signed by several countries participating in the programme. Each of the nations that have registered their components owns those items.

“Although we are looking at an integrated space station, the individual components are also covered by legal requirements. This means that they will all have to agree beforehand on how to dispose of the station,” Gabrynowicz said, “y including specific liability provisions.”

Whether “burnt” or not, the deorbiting of the ISS will require the partners to reach new agreements and some details regarding the management of liability. “Then we’ll see if it’s a spatial law, a precedent-setting event,” Gabrynowicz concluded.

Leonard David is the author of “Moon Rush: The New Space Race” (National Geographic, 2019). A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom Or on Facebook.

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