The ISS dumps dumpsters into space

A new space debris disposal method was tested on the International Space Station (ISS), discarding about 172 pounds of trash — including dirty crew clothing and used office supplies.

Nanoracks, a Houston-based private company, has developed a special method to retrieve debris from the ISS and help it re-enter Earth’s atmosphere safely. Currently, the garbage on the space station is stored by the astronauts and only collected when visited by the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which returns to Earth and incinerates on re-entry. Otherwise, debris is often thrown into space directly from the ISS, including the defunct Russian Pirs module, which was launched into orbit in 2021, or occasionally by hand along the outside of the space station by astronauts on spacewalks.

This new method marks the “first use of an airlock trash bag ejection system on the ISS,” according to a tweet from Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell.

Archive image of the ISS orbiting the earth. The space station released nearly 200 pounds of trash in a new waste disposal method in early July.
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“Waste collection in space is a long-standing but less publicly discussed challenge aboard the ISS,” Cooper Read, Bishop Airlock program manager at Nanoracks, said in a statement. “Four astronauts can generate up to 2,500 kg [5,510lbs] garbage per year, or about two garbage cans per week. As we move into a time when more people are living and working in space, this is a critical capability, just as it is for everyone at home.”

The new space debris disposal method uses a special debris container attached to the ISS’s Bishop airlock, the world’s first commercial airlock. The ISS crew can pack up to 600 pounds of junk into the Nanoracks waste container, which is then launched from the station and incinerated upon re-entry into Earth orbit to ensure nothing contributes to space debris.

As with the Cygnus method, the garbage bag burns up on re-entry into the atmosphere, but does not contribute to the formation of space debris.

There are over 27,000 pieces of space debris tracked by NASA, often traveling in low Earth orbit at speeds of up to 25,700 km/h. This fast-moving chunk of debris is dangerous because it can damage or even destroy other satellites and space stations: the ISS has had to move 25 times since 1999 to avoid being hit by space debris.

“This successful test not only demonstrates the future of waste disposal for space stations, but also underscores our ability to use the ISS as a commercial technology testbed, providing critical insights into preparing for the next phases of commercial targets in low-Earth orbit,” said Amela Nanoracks CEO Wilson in a statement.