With a horizon goal to send humans to Mars, NASA continues to develop technologies needed to send humans farther into the solar system than ever before. One area ripe for innovation that could have benefits in space and on Earth is waste management.
Missions to Mars and back are expected to take two to three years. During these long trips, astronauts will generate a lot of waste, and unlike our crews aboard the International Space Station, they will not have the benefit of on-demand resupply missions to deliver supplies or remove trash. Some waste products may be repurposed into useful materials, or turned into a gas which the crew could either use or vent into space, while others will need to be safely jettisoned, or ejected from the spacecraft. With a goal of making giant leaps in sustainability, NASA is seeking input from the public to help develop new and innovative ideas to convert waste into useful materials or safely eject it away from a spacecraft.
The Waste to Base Materials Challenge: Sustainable Reprocessing in Space launched in January 2022 and seeks ideas to convert waste into useful resources, like propellant or raw materials for 3D printing. Participants are asked to share their ideas for managing, converting or processing a few specific categories of waste, including trash, fecal waste, foam packaging, and carbon dioxide.
“Mars crews will need to be able to recycle, repurpose, or reprocess things and make what they need from raw materials,” said Steve Sepka, project manager for the Trash Compaction and Processing System at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and a challenge manager for the Waste to Base Materials Challenge. “We are calling on the global community to provide us with the most creative, thoughtful, and impactful approaches to spacecraft waste management solutions.”
One sustainable trash management approach is called Trash-to-Gas. Trash-to-Gas uses a thermal degradation process to convert waste items into a gas that the crew could either reuse onboard or dispose of via gas venting overboard the spacecraft. NASA has demonstrated this concept in microgravity on two suborbital flights. The gasification process also creates some ash residue in the reactor. The Trash-to-Gas Ash Management Challenge , launched in March, seeks design concepts for an effective method of removing the ash from a full-scale Trash-to-Gas reactor in microgravity for later use or disposal. Handling ash on Earth is a messy process, and microgravity further complicates ash handling. Finding solutions that protect crew health, automate or minimize crew time spent on this task, and seamlessly remove the ash will benefit the next phase of Trash-to-Gas technology development.
And while NASA has made gains in creating a sustainable “circular economy” aboard crewed spacecraft, a portion of the waste generated cannot be recycled. This non-recyclable waste could take up critical crew habitat volume and mass, and some waste products may pose risks to the spacecraft and crew. Controlled jettison operations could effectively mitigate these risks and avoid creating hazards or contaminants, while maximizing livable volume and increasing fuel efficiency for the spacecraft. The Waste Jettison Mechanism Challenge, launched in February 2022, seeks concepts from the public for ways to safely eject materials from a crewed spacecraft. Jettisoned objects would safely orbit the Sun so as not to contaminate celestial bodies or interfere with future space missions.
“We will need to dispose of items that can’t be recycled or reused in a manner that is safe for the spacecraft, crew, and future missions as well,” said Mike Ewert, life support and thermal systems analyst at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “A jettison mechanism would lighten the spacecraft, save fuel, and most importantly, could help long-term missions be successful.”
HeroX administers all three challenges for NASA. The submission deadline for the Waste to Base Materials Challenge is March 15, 2022, and the top 24 ideas will share a prize purse of $24,000. The submission deadline for the Waste Jettison Mechanism Challenge is April 12, 2022. The challenge is offering a total of $30,000 in cash prizes and the potential to work and collaborate with NASA. The top five submissions will be invited to pitch their designs online to a NASA panel. In addition, three finalists will be given the opportunity to attend a virtual workshop with NASA to explore their concepts in more detail. The submission deadline for the Trash-to-Gas Ash Management Challenge is May 12, 2022, and the top three ideas will share a prize purse of $30,000.
The NASA Tournament Lab, part of the Prizes, Challenges, and Crowdsourcing program in the Space Technology Mission Directorate, manages the challenges. The program supports public competitions and crowdsourcing as tools to advance NASA research and development and other mission needs.
Learn more about opportunities to participate in your space program via NASA prizes and challenges at: