space debris in Earth orbit

Better solutions for trash collection and recycling are important not just here on Earth, but also in space. And to get fresh, innovative ideas from a wide creative pool, NASA, in partnership with NineSigma, has turned to idea crowdsourcing through a competition challenge.

The challenge, Recycling in Space: Waste Handling in a Microgravity Environment, which ended on January 2019, accepted proposals from the public “for technologies and systems that will, in a microgravity environment, store & transfer logistical mission waste to a thermal processing unit for decomposition. The technology will improve the environmental footprint of future human spacecraft.”

Paul Hintze, a chemist with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Exploration Research and Technology Programs and a judge for the competition, said, “The challenge produced ideas that were innovative and that we had not yet considered. I look forward to further investigating these ideas and hope they will contribute to our human spaceflight missions.”

The challenge was, ahem, launched on October 18, 2018. And on April 1, 2019, NASA and NineSigma announced the winners.

The top prize isn’t, alas, a round-trip ticket to the moon, or even a space suit (unlike in Robert Heinlein’s classic science fiction novel, Have Space Suit, Will Travel). But, in addition to the cash prizes, winners and other contestants have the satisfaction of knowing they are contributing to more successful space missions.

Space Litter: You Can’t Just Throw Stuff Down the Trash Chute

As Mary Roach makes clear in her informative and entertaining book, Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, dealing with life’s ongoing chores and concerns requires new solutions in the absence of things we take for granted, like gravity and air.

For example, disposing of trash — or recycling or repurposing it.

In space proper, trash collection — whether of dead satellites, discarded pieces, or other detritus from human endeavors — or simply gathering up cosmic clutter, isn’t just good housekeeping. It’s a safety concern.

After all, nobody likes a meteor falling on their city — or even nearby. (For a science fiction look at how these events play out, try Mary Robinette Kowal’s two-booker, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves [or my quasi-poetic summary on — scroll/search down to (18)], or Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer.)

In space, even a grain of grit colliding with a satellite or vehicle can be a problem — if it’s traveling fast enough. And, according to NASA, more than 500,000 pieces of “space junk” orbit Earth “at speeds up to 17,500 mph.” Elon Musk sent a red Tesla Roadster off into deep space. We are filling our route off the planet with junk and even a relatively small piece of this space debris could damage spacecraft or one of many satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

For a different perspective, watch a few episodes of Quark, the 1977 science fiction sitcom set on an United Galaxy Sanitation Patrol Cruiser (aka, a space trash collection truck). And if you’re a gamer, Mark Crowe’s 1989 Space Quest III: The Pirates of Pestulon apparently includes Garbage Freighters.

computerized graphic of robot at spaceship controls
Image source 

Trash in space is a concern inside crewed vehicles and space stations, but the lack of gravity — and in some cases, atmosphere — makes proper trash-handling different and harder than down here on planet Earth.

Depending on the mission, you may not want to simply bag that trash up until you get to wherever you’re going to dispose of it, either. In a closed system, “garbage” represents a valuable source of materials for reuse, repurposing, or recycling — a point that James S.A. Corey’s science fiction book series, The Expanse, makes throughout. (It’s also a great TV series — originally on, now via Amazon Prime — check it out!)

How Big Is the Space Litter Problem?

According to NineSigma, “For a mission lasting 1 year, a team of four astronauts would generate approximately 2,500 kilograms of waste.”

Astronaut logistical waste can, says NineSigma, contain a variety of products, including:

  • Fabrics (from discarded clothing)
  • Foam
  • Food packaging
  • Human waste
  • Hygienic wipes
  • Low- and high-density plastics
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Paper.

The big challenge in trash collection, recycling, and repurposing in microgravity environments is moving waste along the processing path — without relying on gravity to provide “down” force. The aim of this challenge, says NineSigma, was “to identify receptacle and feeder mechanisms suitable for a microgravity environment that can deliver mission waste for decomposition.”

And, according to NASA, “The purpose of the challenge is to engage the public to develop methods of processing and feeding trash into a high-temperature reactor. This will help NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems and space technology programs develop trash-to-gas technology that can recycle waste into useful gases.”

And the Winners Are …

According to NASA and NineSigma’s April 1 announcement, “The NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) crowdsourcing challenge received submissions from participants around the world. A panel of judges evaluated the solutions and selected one first place and two second place winners.” 

The Recycling in Space challenge winners:

  • First place ($10,000): Waste Pre-Processing Unit — Aurelian Zabciu, Romania 
  • Second place ($2,500): Microgravity Waste Management System — Derek McFall, United States
  • Second place ($2,500): Trash-Gun (T-Gun) — Ayman Ragab Ahmed Hamdallah, Egypt

According to NASA, “The three winners brought a variety of approaches to the table for the challenge. Zabciu’s submission proposed incorporating space savings features and camera-actuated ejectors to move trash through the system, before bringing it to another mechanism to complete the feed into the reactor. McFall’s submission indicated it would use a hopper for solid waste and managed air streams for liquids and gaseous waste. Hamdallah proposed using air jets to compress the trash and cycle it through the system instead of gravity.”

Mary Robinette Kowal, a three-time Hugo Award winning science fiction author whose recent novels, The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, include a lot of space mission planning and action, says, “As space missions get longer in duration — and farther from Earth — recycling and repurposing will be even more important.”

I asked Kowal in her capacity as both a science fiction writer and reader if she had any observations or suggestions for the creators inventing new space tech — and the people who will be using it on-site.

“There is a difference between policy and the way people actually live,” says Kowal. “For long-duration missions, you have to look at the latter. One way to get some real-world insights is by looking at communities like Iceland and other island nations where people have a fixed set of resources to draw upon.”

The big thing for me,” says Kowal, “is that whatever procedures and policies that the planners come up with, it will be something that works fine in the long term … but people often forget the human part of these equations, how policies flex based on actual lived conditions. For example, you’ll have the space equivalent of the ‘junk drawer’ — which the International Space Station already has one of.”

“If you have can break things down into their constituent parts and materials, and have 3D printers,” she suggests, “that gives you more flexibility. And you will also have people repurposing existing materials for completely new, unanticipated uses, whether it’s to fix things, build new devices, or make art.”

person silhouetted against starry night sky
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

You, Too, Can Be Part of Space Challenges & Citizen Science

These recycling technologies could prove useful not just on future space missions, but on planetary surfaces, including here on Earth.

For tech entrepreneurs and students of all ages, challenges like these offer opportunities to create, compete, and gain visibility — and to engage in space programs and other citizen science activities.

See the NASA Tournament Lab to participate in open NTL challenges. And visit NASA Solve! for information challenges, citizen science activities, and prize competitions that help develop NASA-mission-related problems.

Odds are you won’t win a trip to the moon or even a space suit … but ya never know, it could happen.


By Daniel Dern

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.