SpaceX helps ISS astronauts safely dispose of space garbage junk


Q: The astronauts on the space station must accumulate a large amount of trash. How do they dispose of their garbage? Do they simply toss it out into space?

A: For years, those on the International Space Station had little alternative to dumping their trash into space. Now thanks to SpaceX and its Dragon cargo ship, a lot of that garbage is finding its way back home.

Of course, you may be thinking what’s the big deal? Who cares if you shoot out a few candy wrappers into the vast emptiness of space? It’s not like some Jedi cop is going to pull you over for littering.

The trouble is it can be a big deal. Currently there are thousands of pieces of junk — each of them more than 30 feet long — hurtling around the planet. There are tens of thousands more that measure from 1 to 4 inches and millions of pieces smaller than a centimeter. All it might take would be for one of these pieces of junk, flying around at thousands of miles an hour, to crash into the space station and cause a catastrophe.

Still, since assembly began in November 1998, there hasn’t been much else astronauts could do with their waste. That’s why in 2007, the crew made headlines when they had to toss out a 212-pound (on Earth, at least) camera mount followed by a 1,300-pound ammonia tank as the station orbited 220 miles above the south Atlantic Ocean.

At the time, Kirk Shireman, the deputy space station program manager, said NASA scientists ask several questions before jettisoning any significant junk.

“Is it safe for the International Space Station? Is it safe for any other orbiting vehicle? Is it safe for people on Earth? Does it make sense from an overall problematic risk standpoint?”

Fortunately, much of the junk eventually will fall back toward Earth, burning up in the atmosphere as it descends. For example, cosmonaut Panel Vinogradov once hit a golf ball into orbit as a publicity stunt for a golf club manufacturer. The ball reportedly stayed in orbit only a few days. Still, millions of pounds of space trash are thought to have survived the fall to Earth over the years. Most of it lands harmlessly in the water, but there was a piece of rocket insulation that reportedly tapped Tulsa’s Lottie Williams on the shoulder in 1997.

In the past few years, however, the space station crew has become far more eco-friendly. Since at least 2014, the Cygnus supply ships, once unloaded, are packed with trash and set loose to burn up in the atmosphere during re-entry.

Now, they’re even going that one better. For the first time in May 2012, the SpaceX Dragon successfully docked with the space station, was reloaded with experiments and trash and set loose to splash down softly for a successful recovery in the Pacific. Just last Feb. 19, the 10th such Dragon mission was launched successfully from Cape Canaveral’s historic Launch Complex 39A, so you might sleep a little bit easier knowing the astronauts have an alternative to using their environs as their personal landfill … er … spacefill.

Today’s trivia

Who was the youngest guest Johnny Carson ever interviewed?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Like ’em or hate ’em, Belleville News-Democrat readers occasionally find a single broadsheet (page) ad wrapped around a couple of sections of their daily newspaper. Well, there’s a name for these: For reasons I have yet to uncover, they’re called spadea (or spadia), and it may date back to about 2007 when the New York Times ran its first spadea ad campaign.

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