NASA Announces Trashy Award-Winning Ideas for Cleaning Space Station

NASA astronaut Don Pettit poses with stowage bags on the International Space Station in 2012.
NASA astronaut Don Pettit poses with stowage bags on the International Space Station in 2012. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA recently selected three winning ideas to compress trash in space with a minimum of fuss.

Because astronauts have limited space in their living quarters — and because nobody likes the danger that ejected space debris poses to spacecraft — dealing with trash is a constant issue for spaceflyers.

That's why NASA, in partnership with the company NineSigma, created a Recycling in Space Challenge to encourage the public to think of ways of processing and feeding trash into a high-temperature reactor. This will allow NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems directorate (which develops prototype systems and validates operational concepts for human exploration), as well as the agency's space technology programs, to develop methods to recycle waste and convert the trash into useful gases.

Three winners were selected from a NASA Tournament Lab crowdsourcing challenge, according to a statement from NASA

The award recipients are: 

  • Aurelian Zapciu, Romania — $10,000 for first place, Waste Pre-Processing Unit. This uses space-saving features, as well as ejectors that are cam-actuated (they use a rotating or sliding piece in a mechanical system) to move trash through a system. Then, another mechanism brings the waste products into a reactor.
  • Derek McFall, United States — $2,500 for second place, Microgravity Waste Management System. This uses a hopper to deal with solid waste, as well as controlled air streams for liquid and gaseous waste.
  • Ayman Ragab Ahmed Hamdallah, Egypt — $2,500 for second place, Trash-Gun (T-Gun). This uses air jets to compress trash before moving it through the system, overcoming the problem of operations in microgravity, where everything floats and makes compression difficult.

The submissions had to take into account several factors besides the lack of gravity, including the amount of space available, the sound level created, and the amount of power used as well as  crew safety, according to the NASA statement. The proposed systems couldn't use a lot of consumables, either. (Consumables are items such as oxygen, water and power.)

"The challenge produced ideas that were innovative and that we had not yet considered," Paul Hintze, a judge for the competition, said in the statement. Hintze is also a chemist with NASA's Kennedy Space Center exploration, research and technology programs. "I look forward to further investigating these ideas and hope they will contribute to our human spaceflight missions."

Learn about the NASA Tournament Lab (including how to participate in the lab's challenges) here; read about more citizen science opportunities and challenges at NASA here.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: