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See the Space Station Toss Trash From an Air Lock for the First Time

The specially designed waste container will burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

A trash bag floats in orbit above the clouds of Earth.
Heading toward incineration.
NASA

Wherever humans go, they generate trash. On the International Space Station, there's no garbage truck swinging by once a week to clear out the junk. Over the weekend, NASA and space company Nanoracks demonstrated a new way to deal with ISS waste.

The test involved Nanoracks' Bishop Airlock. The air lock is a commercial addition to the ISS that's designed to deploy small satellites, act as a movable toolbox for spacewalks and hold experiments. Now, for the first time, it's been used to eject garbage. In a statement on Wednesday, Nanoracks called it "more efficient and sustainable model for eliminating waste aboard the ISS."

The crew stuffed 172 pounds (78 kilograms) of dirty clothing, foam, packing materials, spent office supplies and hygiene products into a baglike waste container inside the air lock. They then sealed up the container and used a robotic arm to move Bishop into a position where it could release the junk. Nanoracks shared a video of the action.

The demonstration could give the ISS crew a new option for waste disposal. Usually, the astronauts and cosmonauts collect garbage for months before stuffing it into a visiting Cygnus cargo spacecraft that then undocks and burns up. The air lock waste bag can hold up to 600 pounds (72 kilograms) of material, while Cygnus can hold thousands of pounds.

Though the air lock system has a smaller capacity, it could be used more often to help keep trash from piling up on board the station, where's there's limited room. "As we move into a time with more people living and working in space, this is a critical function just like it is for everyone at home," said Bishop Airlock Program Manager Cooper Read.

Nanoracks is developing a space station of its own that it hopes to have operational by 2027. A similar trash disposal system could become a part of that station's design.

The trash bag will eventually burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Back in February, Nanoracks noted that it could take about nine months for this process to complete. Until then, there will probably be some dirty ISS undies making the rounds in orbit.