NASA Turns Space Trash into Potential Radiation Shields

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NASA researchers are evaluating whether small, circular tiles made from space trash can be used as radiation shields during deep-space missions. Photo: NASA

Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are testing discs made of “space trash”— including plastic water bottles, clothing scraps, duct tape and foil drink pouches– to see whether they can be reused as radiation shields during deep-space missions.

The small, circular disc tiles were made at the NASA Ames Research Center in California using a special compactor that melts trash without incinerating it. The compactor transforms a day’s worth of garbage into a solid 8-inch diameter tile about half an inch thick.

Researchers believe the discs have the potential to be used as radiation shields because of the high amount of plastic packaging in the trash.

“The idea is to make these tiles, and, if the plastic components are high enough, they could actually shield radiation,” says microbiologist Mary Hummerick in a news release on the NASA website.

Increased radiation shielding could be useful in astronauts’ sleeping quarters, or in regions of the spacecraft where the crew is exposed to solar flare effects.

Hummerick and the team at the Space Life Sciences Lab at Kennedy are currently evaluating whether the heating and compaction process is effective in killing bacteria on the tiles.

So far, so good.

“They are achieving sterilization for the most part,” Hummerick says. “What we don’t know is, can a few possible surviving bacteria go inert and then grow back.”

Researchers also hope the compaction process will help remove water—a valuable commodity in space—from trash so that it can be re-used by space crews.

The handling of waste disposal is a crucial consideration for NASA mission planners. Cramped quarters and extremely limited resources are just some of the challenges that planners and astronauts face during long-range missions. Space crews cannot simply throw trash overboard.

“We don’t want to contaminate the surface of an asteroid or something just by throwing the trash out the door,” says microbiologist Richard Strayer in the news release. “If NASA doesn’t do something about it, then the spacecraft will become like a landfill, with the astronauts adding trash to it every day.”