ISS Dumps Waste Container of Junk into Outer Space

A new space waste disposal method has been tested on the International Space Station (ISS), disposing of approximately 172 lbs of garbage—including dirty crew clothing and used office supplies.

Nanoracks, a Houston-based private company, has developed a special method to get trash from the ISS and help it safely re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Currently, garbage on the space station is stored by the astronauts, and collected only when they are visited by the Cygnus cargo spacecraft going back to Earth, which will burn up on re-entry. Otherwise, trash is often jettisoned directly from the ISS into space, including the defunct Russian Pirs module that was released into orbit in 2021, or occasionally by hand by astronauts on spacewalks along the outside of the space station.

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

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Stock image of the ISS orbiting Earth. The space station released nearly 200lbs of garbage in a new waste disposal method earlier in July. iStock / Getty Images Plus

"Waste collection in space has been a long-standing, yet not as publicly discussed, challenge aboard the ISS," said Cooper Read, Bishop Airlock program manager at Nanoracks, in a statement. "Four astronauts can generate up to 2,500kg [5,510lbs] 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."

The new space waste disposal method uses a special waste container that is mounted onto the ISS's Bishop Airlock, which is the world's first commercial airlock. The ISS crew can fit up to 600lbs of garbage inside the Nanoracks waste container, which is then launched from the station, burning up as it re-enters the Earth's orbit, ensuring nothing is contributing to space junk.

Like the Cygnus method, the waste bag also burns up upon re-entry into the atmosphere, but does not contribute to the creation of any space debris.

There are over 27,000 pieces of space junk tracked by NASA, often traveling at up to 15,700 mph in low-Earth orbit. These chunks of fast-moving debris are dangerous, as they can damage or even destroy other satellites and space stations: the ISS has had to move to avoid being hit by space debris 25 times since 1999.

"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," said Amela Wilson, Nanoracks CEO, in a statement.