NASA is calling American industry experts to develop technologies that could effectively manage trash on future deep space missions to the moon and beyond.

The agency wants to fly humans farther than ever before and has already started working on the vehicle and spacecraft for the project — the Space Launch System and Orion capsule. However, executing a mission like that also demands effective techniques for handling trash, which can easily create major storage challenges during a spaceflight.

The International Space Station (ISS) best explains this case. The orbital lab flies some 400km above ground level, and the crew living on it regularly receives supplies from the space agency in the form of cargo resupply missions. These launches, conducted with the help of partners like SpaceX, take science experiments and items for day to day survival into space.

Cargo resupply mission
The SpaceX CRS-13 Dragon cargo spacecraft is pictured attached to the International Space Station’s Harmony module after it arrived on Dec. 17. 2017. NASA

In all, as much as 12,000 kilograms of cargo is delivered to the station every year. As this can create serious storage challenges on the craft, the crewmembers give special attention to waste management by saving resources, repurposing materials, and recycling water and air. However, despite all that effort around two kg of trash still accumulates, leaving them no option but to squeeze it into trash bags and send it away on a departing resupply vehicle.

The vehicle either brings the waste back to Earth for safe disposal or burns in the atmosphere solving the problem of trash management for those on the ISS. But that’s also a catch. The temporary disposal method works for space station because it sits on low-Earth orbit, but if the mission is to the moon or a distant planet like Mars, the facility of a cargo ship won’t be available.

In such cases, the waste accumulated over a long journey would not only eat up precious room on the spacecraft but also create physical and biological problems for those onboard. The agency has also noted storing trash even affects the possibility of extracting and recycling useful resources for the benefit of the mission.

This is exactly why it is calling private companies and industry experts to come up with systems capable of handling the trash during a deep space mission. As part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships or NextSTEP-2 effort, the agency wants the companies to demonstrate technologies and prototypes for trash compaction and processing.

The proposed system, as NASA described in a release, should be able to reduce the size of the trash, safely remove biological and physical hazards, and extract trapped resources that could be recycled in the future.

Once a few proposals are selected by the agency, the companies will have to develop their concept system. In the first phase, the system will be developed and tested in ground demonstrations and lab experiments. NASA has stated the companies will be allowed to use some of its waste management technologies like Heat Melt Compactor and “trash to gas” tech for the developing their systems. After this, the most promising system will be transformed into a flight-capable unit and flown to the ISS sometime around 2022.