Out of this world solutions to waste handlingJust like managing waste here on earth, management of waste products in space takes a lot of planning.
By: Waste In Space/By Steve Christen/“The Recycling Guy”, Superior Telegram
Just like managing waste here on earth, management of waste products in space takes a lot of planning. Unlike us on the big blue planet, when your drifting about in space, there is no curbside or drop off facility for astronauts to use. Instead waste materials are wrapped up like a football and duct taped and either placed in the emptied storage area from whence it came, or jettisoned out during re-entry and burned.
Late in 2011, NASA launched — pun intended — the “Logistics Reduction and Repurposing project.” The projects’ mission — again pun intended — is to reduce the mass and volume of consumable items, along with developing new ways to reduce trash volumes created during space flights. Interestingly, enough, space garbage has not been a problem in the past. Typically, all wastes came back when the mission ended. A rocket goes up and comes back — no big deal, right. However, NASA’s vision of the future is to have space missions that would deliver supplies to an orbiting space station and then instead of returning to earth it would continue on to who knows where else.
NASA estimates a yearlong mission with four astronauts would produce 8,600 pounds of organic food. Their goal is to reuse and eliminate as much of this waste weight as possible. One process that scientists are working on is a heated compacting device. This unit would heat to 350 degrees, and compact the material in what would look like an intergalactic hockey puck. Further studies are being conducted to see if by reshaping this “puck” if it can’t be used to line crew quarters as a heat shield. Instead of the space ship having to build heat shields into the crew quarters to begin with, if these shields can be added at a rate of 2 or 3 a day, by the time the mission returns, these shields would now protect the crew upon re-entry.
Another team of scientists is looking at ways to take the trash and wastes, and break them down and take the atoms in and structure new molecules that can be used for something else. A good example would be methane production. A crew of four could conceivably produce enough methane to power a lunar ascent. A lunar ascent vehicle is the rocket that would leave the moon and take people or items back to earth. This alone would make future launches easier and less expensive.
Space clothing is something else that is expected to see a lot of change. Up until now, astronauts have worn cotton-based fibers for clothing. Because the weight of the clothing needed for the duration of a long mission is considerably lighter, a lighter type of fabric made from a polymer is being developed. This polymer not only weighs less, but can be worn longer as it is somewhat odor resistant, and it works perfectly well with the heat compactor or with the gasification process.
Now for those of us who reside here on the third rock from the sun, ideas from the space program sound a little like the Buck Rogers era, (for those of you too young to remember, when space ships were first visualized in movies and such they actually had steering wheels), don’t forget that a lot of space technology has deviated from its intended purpose and is now in Earth’s Orbital markets.
In fact, so many items have been incorporated into our daily lives that NASA has filed over 6,300 patents with the U.S. Government.
While currently the waste and recycling industry uses compaction, the thought of heating it opens up a lot more opportunities than current management and recycling programs do. The very fact that plastic is petroleum based makes one think that a fuel derivative from plastic bottles is somehow achievable. When you think of it, the emphasis in our culture has been to reduce packaging materials to make less waste and promote a green life style. In the future, packaging materials in third world countries could be reused as a fuel. Imagine an army that could fuel itself on the waste it generated. The key to future product development be it in space or for consumer use here in Superior, is to consider reuse at the beginning of the product and have a goal of a second life rather than disposal.
The contents of this article were derived from a story printed in the Waste and Recycling News. Please keep your recycling questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org.