Astronauts aboard the International Space Station receive approximately 12 metric tons of supplies each year through regular cargo resupply missions.
While these supplies are crucial for their survival inside the habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit, they also lead to significant storage challenges inside the orbiting lab.
The way astronauts had so far been using to deal with accumulated trash required them to manually squeeze it into trash bags. These bags, containing as much as two metric tons of such trash, are then stored for a short period of time, before they are taken away by a commercial supply vehicle, which either returns the trash to Earth or lets it get burned during reentry through the atmosphere.
Preparing for deep space missions
With scientists getting serious about deep space missions, future spacecraft will have to travel much farther from Earth. If that happens, they will be out of reach for the regular cadence of visiting commercial ships to remove trash. NASA has, therefore, turned to US industries, and called for prototypes and flight demonstrations to fly on the space station.
The existing trash removal procedure requires storing trash inside a spacecraft that not only consumes volume, but can also create physical and biological hazards for the crew members. Storage also doesn’t allow astronomers to extract leftover resources that can be recycled, something that is possible with the proposed solutions.
“The solicitation seeks solutions that compact trash, remove biological and physical safety concerns, and recover trapped resources for potential reuse or repurposing,” NASA said in a statement.
Two phases of development
The development will occur in two phases. In the first phase, selected companies will create a concept trash compaction and processing system and conduct design reviews with NASA. They will also validate concepts through prototype ground demonstrations, and will be allowed to use NASA facilities to conduct subsystem tests, if needed.
In the second phase, a flight unit will be developed to demonstrate a system aboard the space station sometime in 2022. According to NASA, new innovations like trash compaction and processing systems will make deep space missions involving humans safer and more sustainable.