Astronaut garbage is a serious operational concern when travelling to the Moon and Mars
(Image source: NASA)

Astronaut garbage is a serious operational concern when travelling to the Moon and Mars

Waste, trash, refuse – regardless of preferred nomenclature – the approach to managing it has stood for centuries: collect it and then send it somewhere else to be stored or incinerated. The same holds for waste produced by astronauts in space. But for those who may spend extended time on the Moon or Mars, this approach might not be the best idea.
For decades, the approach to managing astronaut refuse has involved temporarily storage and then disposal – either by returning it to Earth or by placing it in a disposable supply vehicle for incineration upon reentry. As NASA pushes the boundaries of human space exploration through longer missions to the Moon and Mars, these proven approaches will no longer be feasible for several reasons. Returning trash to Earth will be impractical, jettisoning it during the mission may result in the loss of valuable recoverable resources, and disposing of it locally may pose a planetary protection risk. To address these concerns, Collins Aerospace, a United Technologies Corporation subsidiary, has proposed an integrated trash compaction and processing system designed to handle astronaut trash in situ.

The highly integrated technical baseline leverages decades of Collins' Environmental Control and Life Support Systems (ECLSS) experience to perform safe recovery and processing of the valuable resources from the trash compaction system, minimizing the loss of cabin air while maximizing the amount of water recovered. Through the compaction process, the system would reduce trash volume by 93 percent, turning two cubic feet of trash into a 9-inch by 1.75-inch disc – essentially reducing something roughly the size of a beer keg to the size of a small pizza.

NASA selected Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Collins to develop the concept through the agency's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships-2 (NextSTEP-2) solicitation for trash compaction and processing systems. Collins’ concept system removes the majority of the air (approximately 85 percent) and water (90 percent) from the trash at low temperatures.

Under NextSTEP-2, Collins will have 18 months to develop and test its design before NASA conducts a preliminary design review (PDR). A second phase focused on procurement will follow.

“Astronaut trash poses a significant challenge for future missions to the Moon and Mars,” says Shawn Macleod, senior business manager for Space Systems at Collins Aerospace. “Right now, the crew on the International Space Station generates roughly two cubic feet of trash per day, and a resupply vehicle comes and hauls it away about every four months. On the 18-month journey to Mars, that will not be an option. To facilitate longer missions, we need a new way to handle trash in situ, and our system offers the solution.”

Enabling human space exploration has been a core focus of Collins Aerospace since the Apollo era of the 1960s. The company has developed and manufactured several key life support system technologies for NASA, including the water recovery system currently in use on the International Space Station (ISS). In addition to the trash system, Collins is also under contract with NASA to develop the Universal Waste Management System, which will be the waste management and collection system astronauts use in deep space.

In addition to Collins Aerospace, Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is developing a competing heat melt compaction technology. Additionally, the SNC technology includes a complementary system to recover water from solid waste and developing options to determine if it’s possible to treat contaminants for safe integration with onboard recycling systems.

As with other NextSTEP partners, SNC and Collins each will contribute 20 percent of their own corporate resources toward the overall effort – a measure to encourage simultaneous investment in potential commercial applications of their designs.


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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at william.kucinski@sae.org.
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