One of NASA’s long-term goals is to send humankind into deep space to explore other parts of the solar system; this includes, but isn’t limited to, the neighboring planet Mars.
But taking on such a feat means that the space agency will need to overcome a few challenges, and one of these includes trash management so that astronauts on the deep space spacecraft aren’t swimming in their own garbage.
Image Credit: NASA
On the International Space Station, the commercial capsules that deliver fresh supplies to crew members also serve as massive trash cans that take much of the astronauts’ waste back to Earth. But astronauts that visit distant worlds like Mars and beyond aren’t too likely to have this luxury at their disposal, so NASA will have to devise alternative arrangements.
To find an adequate solution, the space agency is turning to experts in the United States’ commercial segment for ideas. They’ve published their needs in Appendix F of Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP).
“NASA’s ultimate goal is to develop capabilities to enable missions that are not reliant on resupply from Earth thus making them more sustainable and affordable,” the space agency wrote.
“NASA is implementing this by employing a capability-driven approach to its human spaceflight strategy. The approach is based on developing a suite of evolving capabilities that provide specific functions to solve exploration challenges. These investments in initial capabilities can continuously be leveraged and reused, enabling more complex operations over time and exploration of more distant solar system destinations.”
Obviously, the trash that astronauts would accumulate during a deep space mission can’t stay on the spacecraft for the length of the mission. It would take up precious cargo space and present biological hazards to crew members. Furthermore, no one wants to litter the confines of outer space by simply dumping trash away in the middle of nowhere.
Instead, NASA wants commercial companies to develop methods for compacting large amounts of trash, safely removing it from a spacecraft, recovering it in the future for potential recycling (such as converting it into fuel, etc.).
As the space agency points out, the development will occur in two phases. In the first, NASA will hand-select volunteering companies to develop a conceptual trash management system and the necessary prototypes. During the second phase, NASA will require a working flight unit that can be deployed at the International Space Station for testing and demonstration by 2022.
As of this writing, there’s no telling what the brilliant minds at NASA and the partnering commercial companies might come up with, but it’s sure to be an exciting development, to say the least. These efforts will push humanity forward as we seek to explore more of the solar system in person, rather than behind the lens of a camera.