Ascension, a company out of the UK, is catching a bit of flak from geeks for misrepresenting its primary service: scattering human ashes in “space.” Unlike other existing companies, whose space burial services involve launching a sealed craft into orbit for later, earthly retrieval; or NASA, who piggybacked Eugene Shoemaker’s ashes on the deliberately crashed Lunar Prospector probe as the first (and currently only) burial on the moon, Ascension pledges to release your loved one’s ashes in space proper. The contentious issue is their precise definition of “space.”
The company claims it will take an ashes-bearing helium weather balloon up 35 kilometers, into the stratosphere. According to their website, this is well within “near space,” according to the definition that considers the Armstrong limit the border of our atmosphere. (The Armstrong limit is 19km up, and marks the point where protective suiting must be worn because the water in our bodies boils at our ambient temperature.)
But, experts don’t necessarily consider that far enough to be space. The most commonly accepted border between atmosphere and space is the Kármán line, which is located about 100km above the surface of the Earth, and well above the Armstrong line.
Ascension may be using a more romantic definition of where space starts for laypeople who just want a bit of Grandpa to join the constellations he loved so much. But, fudging aside, it may be better in the long run than sending Grandpa into the depths of space. Because then, he becomes debris.
“‘If ashes were scattered in orbit, which these are not, then they’d join the millions of tiny bits of space junk which are traveling at speeds of 7-8 km per second, [space archaeologist Alice Gorman of Flinders University (Australia)] said.
‘Junk this size causes damage to spacecraft by constant bombardment. Each impact is trivial but there’s a cumulative effect. Fortunately, in Low Earth Orbit, this stuff usually enters the Earth’s atmosphere quickly.’”
And burns up harmlessly.
So, while we don’t yet have the opportunity to mingle with the stars from whence we came, post-mortem, I think it’s a fair tradeoff to not accidentally take out the Soyuz. Besides, there are still so many intriguing options for burial on earth! There is still plenty of time to look to the skies.