NASA Wants Your Ideas on How to Keep Trash-Burning Reactors Working for Future Missions to Mars!

In 2033, NASA hopes to make the next great leap in space exploration by sending the first crewed mission to Mars. Additional missions will launch every two years, coinciding with when Mars is in “Opposition” (closest to Earth), to establish a research outpost on the Martian surface. Naturally, many challenges need to be dealt with first, such as logistics, radiation protection, and ensuring enough food, water, and air for the astronauts.

This raises another all-important question: what to do with all the waste this generates? To address this, NASA has once again teamed up with the crowdsourcing platform HeroX to foster solutions. Having already launched competitions for new ideas on how to convert space waste into building materials and jettison the unrecyclable waste, HeroX has launched the Trash-to-Gas Challenge – on behalf of the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL).

With a prize purse of $30,000, NASA wants to hear your best ideas on how to maintain trash-to-gas reactors that may be used on long-duration missions.

NASA is looking for additional solutions for dealing with trash generated during long-duration missions to Mars. Credit: NASA

To put it simply, sending astronauts to Mars will include some long transits, dangerous exposure to radiation, and a lot of supplies. A one-way trip to Mars can take between six and nine months using conventional propulsion technology. Combined with a few months of surface operations, this means that a crewed mission could last between two and three years. During these missions, the astronauts will generate considerable amounts of waste.

As this waste accumulates, it will occupy more volume aboard a spacecraft (which is already limited) and could even become a hazard for astronaut health. Ultimately, astronauts have three options for preventing the waste from building up during long-duration missions:

  1. Dry, stabilize, and compact: This approach removes the water from the trash, reduces trash volume, and produces trash tiles that may be effective for radiation protection.
  2. Jettison the trash via airlock: This approach removes all of the trash mass and volume from the habitat but may not recover any of the resources within the discarded trash items.
  3. Thermal degradation (Trash-to-Gas): This approach gasifies the waste items, producing water and gases which can be reutilized onboard or vented overboard.

Along with its other challenges (the Waste to Base and Jettison Launcher Challenges), the Trash-to-Gas challenge represents the third prong in NASA’s plan to deal with space waste efficiently. This time around, NASA is looking for innovative ideas for safely removing ash from trash-to-gas reactors that may be used on long-duration missions. These reactors take common wastes (food wrappers, used clothing, scraps, tape, packaging, etc.) and heat them to produce methane, oxygen, water, and other products.

Mars Ascent Vehicle Deploying Sample Container in Orbit (Artist’s Concept). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These can be vented to reduce the mass burden they create or reused in other spacecraft systems (life-support, bioreactors, drinking water, propellant, etc.) The reactors also create ash as a byproduct, which must be removed regularly (and in microgravity conditions) to keep the reactors working efficiently. As HeroX CEO Kal K. Sahota said in the Challenge press release:

“NASA is tapping the power of the crowd to address a range of waste management issues in order to guarantee successful and more sustainable flights. It’s these moments that allow anybody, from anywhere, to participate in solving intergalactic problems.”

With a total prize purse of $30,000, the competition will award three design concepts, with first, second, and third place winners receiving prizes of $15,000, $10,000, and $5000 (respectively). The winning entries will be those that offer actionable designs for the safe removal of ash from trash-to-gas reactors in microgravity conditions so that they can be used throughout long-term missions.

The prize is open to anyone aged 18 or older, participating as an individual or as a team, from any country – provided U.S. federal sanctions do not prohibit participation (some restrictions apply). For more information, check out the Challenge page!

Further Reading: HeroX