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Why don't we launch rubbish into space

By Trash Talk on Feb 2, 11 09:38 AM

Whenever we do a talk about waste and recycling to school children more often than not someone will ask: "Why don't we launch rubbish into space, rather than bury it?"

So why don't we blast waste into space?


Cost mainly
Let's assume we are going to use the space shuttle to be our bin-wagon. Nasa states that it costs 450 million US dollars to launch the space shuttle. Which means (based on a average payload mass of 22 tonnes: in other words the shuttle can fit about 22 tonnes into its cargo hold) it costs about 12.5 million GBP (£) to put a tonne of mass into orbit (low earth orbit actually but more on that below). Other cheaper launchers (these are one shot rockets) are available but the price does not come down that much. To get it as far as the moon? - well I don't have a cost for that since we have only reached the moon a few times and currently do not have a spacecraft that can reach the moon but it would be many times more than £12 million.

On average every household in the UK produces about one tonne of waste, so your council tax would have to go up by 12 million pounds to pay for your waste disposal. But that is not on the only reason it is a bad idea.

The shuttle (and most other launch systems - the EU and Russia use single use rockets) only reach low earth orbit (know as LEO in the trade, which is between 304 to 528km above sea level).
The problem with LEO is that it is getting full of space rubbish anyway with thousands of bits of spaces ship, satellites and other lost bits: including a glove lost by astronaut Ed White during a 1965 space walk (I have no idea how that is even possible), a camera that Michael Collins dropped in 1966 and a pair of pliers from an International Space Station astronaut.
Scientists now worry that a chain reaction of collisions (impacts create more debris that cause more impacts that create more debris) could be created if we do not so something to clean up LEO. Blasting the rubbish in LEO using lasers or explosives would just create more debris and wouldn't do much damage anyway. There was a plan to use lasers to ablate the debris and slow it down making it fall into the atmosphere but nothing seems to have been done.

So it is too crowded and full of rubbish already.

Also LEO is not very high. So stuff does eventually come down. Which compared to the daily meteor count from material left over from the birth of the solar system the amount is pretty small but some of the bits can be big and dense - In 2006, pieces of a Russian spy satellite nearly hit a Latin American Airbus.

So the waste will come down with a bump.

Lastly by blasting it into space you are taking what could be a resource off the planet. Removing forever the chance that it could be reused or recycled.

Basically it is better to recycle that material than remove it from the eco-system.

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