Sci-fi visions of going to Mars have imagined everything from 3D-printed habitats to terraforming, but one thing no one really wants to discuss that much in all such idealized fiction is the unfortunate reality that wherever there are humans, there is trash.
NASA wants to figure out how to get rid of all those freeze-dried food wrappers (and everything else) way before we land on Mars or venture into deep space. The space agency just announced that it will be seeking concepts for trashing space garbage through its NextSTEP program, so they can find new ways to compact and process trash so the waste situation.
Using the ISS, which sees literally tons of trash every year, as a testing ground for methods of waste management is the most obvious way to prepare for extended stays away from Earth. The floating space station already receives around 13 tons of supplies from cargo resupply missions every year, and periodically sends around 2 tons back to Earth in a commercial supply vehicle that either brings it to the surface or lets it burn up in the atmosphere.
Extreme efficiency measures have to be implemented in order to make the most of resources as well as reduce, reuse, and recycle water, breathable air, and anything remotely valuable. Trash equals volume, and an excess of it stashed in a spacecraft could mean both physical hazards and the obvious biohazards of things that breed bacteria.
If the storage element can be factored out, there will be more room for recycling and repurposing. What NASA is looking for companies to come up with is a solution that can eliminate those hazards and repurpose as much as possible.
Companies selected for Phase A of the development will use their own resources to create a trash processing system concept. Design reviews with NASA will refine concepts until they are ready to be prototyped. Prototypes in this phase will be demonstrated on the ground. As soon as 2022, a flight unit to test these concepts will be built, and the candidates who pass to Phase B will demonstrate their system protos on this unit aboard the ISS.
Mars and deep space will be an even greater challenge because astronauts will be too far from the home planet to receive regular shipments of supplies or send bulging trash bags back in cargo ships. The Heat Melt Compactor (top photo) is being developed to evaporate the water from trash before compacting it, and another emerging technology will turn trash into methane gas to use as rocket fuel.
Now, that is something that hasn’t yet been seen in a science fiction movie. Yet.