Next time you see a shooting star, chances are it’s outright garbage. That’s not a knock for any meteor or comet out there. It’s true. To dispose of the garbage piled up on the International Space Station, the astronauts put them in large cargo containers and return them to Earth’s atmosphere, where it all burned in a glorious flame.
It’s not the most eco-friendly system for getting rid of space junk, and it raises questions about what kind of impact we’re making by adding waste and gases to an already tense atmosphere. straight on Earth. But that’s the only one we have right now.
That could soon change if Steve Sepka has anything to do with it.
Sepka, project manager for NASA’s garbage compaction and handling system, told The Daily Beast: “One of the great ways to deal with garbage and waste is to compact it. “But there are also a lot of problems with space because we have limited power, volume and volume. You also want to be able to take liquids out and dispose of them or reuse it. “
One project NASA is working on right now is a compression system that could turn astronaut trash into paving bricks, which could then be used for practical applications like radiation shielding. Such an approach will get you home to a relevant feature here on Earth but is especially important if you’re an astronaut who has weeks or even months to go. Important supplies: reduce, reuse, recycle.
Sepka is currently the manager for NASA’s Waste to Base Materials Challenge, was held this past spring. It’s a call to scientists around the world to come up with new ideas and concepts to turn space junk on places like the moon or Mars into usable materials.
“We’ve looked at anything from fecal waste and what to do with it, to plastic and garbage. Anything we can do to reuse, recycle and reuse it.“
– Steve Sepka
The focus is on sustainability. Future astronauts on a place like Mars don’t always rely on routine resupply missions. They therefore need to be able to reuse any and all materials they have at their disposal.
“We looked at anything from fecal waste and what to do with it, to plastic and garbage,” he said. “Anything we can do to reuse, recycle and reuse it.”
The challenge marks the beginning of answering a question that is becoming more and more relevant as NASA embarks on its daring goal of returning to the moon and eventually Mars and beyond: We will What the hell do we do with all our extraterrestrial junk? After all, the astronauts won’t be able to just bring it back to Earth like those on the ISS.
The challenge has produced many interesting solutions ranging from using cotton from old astronaut clothes or even packing foam and urine to grow plants in a hydroponic system, to using algae to transfer carbon dioxide. into oxygen.
Without a doubt, the hardest category of the challenge involved what to do with fecal waste. One example involves fermenting manure to break it down. The idea is to “get anaerobic digestion very similar to what happens with composting,” says Sepka. “We’re getting bacteria to do that and what to do with the leftover material. It’s very similar to what we do on Earth.”
Another involved the use of manure as a natural fertilizer, like Mark Watney grows potatoes in Mars. Like so much science fiction before it, it could have real-world use cases once researchers and engineers get to it.
We can’t hope to use it again all of our trash though. Sometimes the trash can is the trash can. Can’t do anything but take it out of the house. This poses another set of major problems that need to be addressed. That’s because one of the biggest challenges when it comes to creating a galactic garbage system is the fact that we want to tackle what scientists call “save the planet,” or practice. prevent dirty materials originating from our Earth from contaminating celestial bodies such as planets or moons.
So sure, we can bury trash beyond Earth, but it can lead to pollution. For example, if an astronaut dumped trash in any of the old craters on Mars, the microorganisms created by the trash could grow — which could lead to a situation where we mistakenly think we discovered life when all we found were our own bad bacteria.
“You want to make sure your footprint is low,” explains Sepka. “We are looking for life forms. You want to make sure you’re not polluting it and that you’re just looking at your own signal. “
It certainly doesn’t help when we’re in places like Mars and the moon. During last spring, NASA has released a photo of the back cover from the Perseverance tester. Later that summer, the company released a heat blanket which they discovered was attached to a rock on Mars.
In fact, we sold out the estimate 15,694 pounds of trash on Mars from the past 50 years of discovery alone. And even that is very small compared to the huge number 400,000 pounds of trash including materials, vehicles, boosters, and flags that we left behind on the moon. Imagine much more when we actually start colonizing the Red Planet or the surface of the Moon.
A 2020 model published year Scientific reports says that we need 110 people to properly settle on Mars, while Elon Musk hopes that we have 1 million people there. At either of those extremes, we’re still talking about exponentially more trash than we are right now. That’s why figuring out the best way to get rid of it is something we need to start thinking about now, rather than later when we land on these planets.
So it seems that NASA is a bit slow in coming up with a good system. Despite its many delays, the Artemis missions to return to the moon are well underway. This means that we should in fact be able to begin colonizing the lunar surface within the next decade or so. In a few decades, we will also set foot on Mars.
According to Sepka, this means that not only will the agency have to develop a trash bin system when we get there, but we’ll also need to dispose of the trash in the spacecraft to get there.
“The first thing to consider is transit because that is a completely different matter than being on a planet,” he explains. “That’s what we’re looking at now: being able to get people there and all the problems of garbage accumulating on spacecraft. What will you do with it?”
That’s why garbage compaction is so important. The smaller you can make it, the easier it is to save space on board. If it gets too full, crew planners don’t rule out simply sending it out into space — though he admits that’s not the ideal solution, Sepka said.
“It’s not common,” he said. The mission designers didn’t want to ingrain the perception that humanity was treating the solar system as its own personal dumping ground. Sustainable waste management not only helps crews thrive in a resource-depleted environment like Mars, but they also advance the moral imperative to protect other worlds from environmental destruction and climate change. Man-made climate change has ravaged the Earth. Hell, we actually have plastic in our blood because of it.
So when we come to a new planet, it makes sense that we want to go on the right foot. That means doing all the things we didn’t do on Earth and starting to recycle — one piece of extraterrestrial trash at a time.