While most folks on Earth are lucky enough to have access to municipal services that take care of all our trash, such garbage collection systems don’t extend to space.
That means astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) need some other way of getting rid of accumulated trash during their lengthy stays in orbit 250 miles above Earth.
Current ISS inhabitant Samantha Cristoforetti, who arrived at the orbiting outpost in April, this week tweeted a short video (below) showing how the crew get rid of the station’s garbage.
It’s pretty much the Earth equivalent of chucking it out of the window, though fortunately, gravity means that instead of it landing in someone’s backyard, the discarded material quickly burns up as it enters Earth’s atmosphere at high speed.
“Back in July we tested a new capability for the space station,” the Italian astronaut said in her tweet. “Filled with dry trash & foam, this big trash container was jettisoned from a depressurised airlock on the station & it burned up harmlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere.”
Back in July we tested a new capability for the @Space_Station. Filled with dry trash & foam, this big trash bag was jettisoned from a depressurised airlock on the station & it burned up harmlessly in the Earth's atmosphere. #MissionMinerva @esa @esaspaceflight pic.twitter.com/o83AH5nKvh
— Samantha Cristoforetti (@AstroSamantha) September 13, 2022
Watch carefully, and you can see the trash emerge from the Bishop Airlock at a rapid clip. Below is another video showing the process taking place in slow-motion.
Built by Texas-based Nanoracks, the airlock’s trash containers can hold up to 600 pounds (272 kg) of unwanted material.
“Waste collection in space has been a long standing — yet not as publicly discussed — challenge aboard the ISS,” Cooper Read, Bishop Airlock program manager at Nanoracks, said earlier this year. “Four astronauts can generate up to 5,510 pounds (2,500 kg) of trash per year, or about two trash cans per week. As we move into a time with more people living and working in space, this is a critical function just like it is for everyone at home.”
Before the deployment of the Bishop Airlock — which is also used by commercial customers for payload deployments and for moving equipment around the station’s exterior — trash was piled into a departing cargo ship that then burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. The new system means astronauts can eject trash on a more regular basis instead of letting it build up inside the station.
Following the first use of the airlock in July, Nanoracks CEO Dr. Amela Wilson commented: “This successful test not only demonstrates the future of waste removal for space stations, but also highlights our ability to leverage the ISS as a commercial technology testbed, which provides critical insights into how we can prepare for the next phases of commercial low-Earth orbit destinations.”