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Why Can’t We Launch Garbage into Space?


Now wouldn’t that be a tidy solution to a big problem? Gather together all the garbage, bundle it up and fire it off into space. Maybe just dump it into the Sun. We could live in a world without trash.

There are just two problems: humans produce an enormous amount of garbage; and rocket launches are extremely expensive.

It’s been estimated that launching material on the space shuttle costs about $10,000/pound ($22,000/kg). Even if engineers could bring down prices by a factor of 10, it would still be thousands of dollars to launch the garbage into space. Let’s imagine a wonderful dream world, where launch costs could be brought down to $1,000/kg – a factor of 1/20th the cost to launch on the space shuttle.

It has also been estimated that the United States alone produces 208 million metric tonnes of garbage per day… per day! So, to launch all that trash into space would cost the United States $208 trillion per day… per day!

The gross domestic product of the United States was $13.13 trillion in 2006, which works out to be about $36 billion a day. In other words, the United States would need to spend 5,800 times its daily gross domestic budget, just to launch its trash into space.

What about nuclear waste? A nuclear reactor releases about 25-30 tonnes of spent fuel every year. With our dream budget of $1,000/kg, that would cost about $25 million to launch a single reactor’s waste into orbit. According to Wikipedia, there are 63 operating reactors in the US, so it would cost about $1.6 billion/year to dispose of the nuclear waste generated.

It’s been estimated that Yucca Mountain – the United State’s current plan to store nuclear waste – will cost about $58 billion to store waste over the course of 100 years. So storing waste in Yucca Mountain will cost about 1/3rd the price of launching that material into space. Not to mention the terrible risk of launching rockets full of nuclear waste into space – imagine what might happen if a rocket exploded in mid-flight…

I’m sure I’ve made some math errors here somewhere…

We have written many articles about space for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the problem with space debris, and here’s an article about human space exploration.

Want more resources on space? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Space Place.

We have also recorded many episode of Astronomy Cast about space. Episode 100 is all about rockets, and Episode 84 is about getting around the Solar System.

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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