Humans can be expected to leave behind massive amounts of garbage wherever they go (which is why the fear of contaminating the universe is not unfounded). In space, no one can take out the trash.
You can’t just dump plastic junk into the void and wait for it to conveniently fall into a black hole somewhere. What you can do is recycle it. Made in Space’s Recycler, which NASA recently sent up to the ISS on a Cygnus spacecraft with the 12th Northrop Grumman resupply mission, doesn't just recycle plastic. It turns all those throwaways into 3D printing filament that the company’s ingenious Manufacturing Device will then print into satellites and other tech entirely in space—with zero waste.
“This technology really allows us to create a new manufacturing system in orbit, which is actually a really essential benefit for space exploration, where you don’t always have the convenience of steady resupply missions,” Austin Jordan, communications manager for Made in Space, told SYFY WIRE. “Being able to take waste and actually turn that into a resource is a crucial technology as we venture deeper and deeper into space.”
The Recycler is the fourth facility that Made in Space has launched to the ISS and will also be the first-ever commercial recycling facility up there. The Manufacturing Device has been on board since 2016, but this will be its eco-conscious undertaking.
Repurposing off Earth goes way beyond morphing candy wrappers into something useful. Any polymer materials or parts, possibly from the space station itself or other experiments, that have broken down will get a second life. You can’t exactly send back all your junk from deep space. Recycling capabilities like this are also going to cut down on the weight and mass of supplies that are brought in from the home planet, another plus for missions that will venture to Mars and whatever else is floating around in that infinite darkness.
So how does the Recycler turn stuff that wouldn’t even make it to a yard sale into functional tools, parts and tech? Incoming material is processed before being pushed through a die and coming out as filament ready for 3D printing. This is where the Manufacturing Device comes in. New filament is fed to the device to be printed on the ISS — and, eventually, the same thing will happen in space.
“We are underway with our Archinaut-1 program, which is actually going to be the first technology demonstration of robotic manufacturing assembly in space in the vacuum,” Jordan said of Made in Space’s more ambitious project that is planned to launch in 2022. “It’s going to be a really exciting moment for the industry and for us as we’re looking to pioneer a new generation of space-optimized structures made in and assembled entirely in orbit.”
We’ve already proved rocket parts are recyclable, so the sky is literally the limit for what you can breathe new life into in space.