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Spotlight shined on 'spacecraft cemetery' and if it's wise to dump space waste in Earth's oceans

International Space Station orbited 264 miles above the Tyrrhenian Sea with the Soyuz MS-19 crew ship docked
Posted at 7:56 PM, Mar 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-07 19:56:52-05

Experts are ringing alarm bells about the continued regularity of using Earth's oceans as drop zones for space debris. Space programs like that in Russia have intentionally directed space debris to reenter Earth over remote parts of the Pacific Ocean, often loaded with waste from the International Space Station.

As Space.com reports, Russia's Mir space station and China's Tiangong-1 prototype outpost both fell into ocean waters. The U.S. sent America's Skylab experimental station in 1979 to its grave into the Pacific, and debris was scattered across the southern Australian coast.

The International Space Station itself, a 500-ton craft, is expected to fall back to Earth at some point, in a controlled re-entry over the South Pacific Ocean's uninhabited area. The region is around a location referred to as Point Nemo, or the "the oceanic pole of inaccessibility." The area is around 1,450 nautical miles from the nearest piece of land.

But, now experts are saying there needs to be more discussion around continuing this ocean dumping practice.

Britta Baechler of Ocean Plastics Research for the Ocean Conservancy said, "From our perspective, it’s definitely concerning that the ocean is still being used in this way as a dumping ground." Baechler said, "We can’t keep putting our waste into the ocean, expecting it to function the way it always has, for humanity and all life on Earth. In many ways, this is an out-of-this-world illustration of what’s been going on for so long."

Source: Google Maps - Point Nemo is indicated with the blue pin.

Baechler said that we have to stop looking at the ocean as too big to fail and said that research shows that humans dump the equivalent of a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day.

"Ingestion and entanglement with plastics in the ocean can also be a lethal encounter for a lot of different types of sea life," Baechler said. "Ultimately, it just doesn’t create a pretty picture."

Dwight Steven-Boniecki, who directed the film "Searching for Skylab, America's Forgotten Triumph," said that the only option for "deorbiting" the ISS is to have it reenter over an ocean and impact waters far away from land. Another option would be to try and target remote pieces of land, but Steven-Boniecki says a landing in water is preferable.

He said, "Incidents of deorbited spacecraft are infrequent enough to not cause any major dilemmas when an ocean is used as the impact zone. Currently, this is infinitely more preferable than trying to target remote land masses. Additionally, the friction of reentry conveniently ensures the bulk of the spacecraft is incinerated before it hits the ground/water. Choosing water as the landing zone provides a safe way to dispose of the debris. There is no other safe alternative."

Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law said that multiple countries who signed an agreement with the ISS will have to agree on how to dispose of the debris. The countries will also have to come together and decide how liability is handled in the case of any mishaps or legal disputes.