The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office estimates that there are more than 23,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm currently in orbit around the Earth. Smaller pieces number in the millions. That debris comes in many forms: sections of rockets jettisoned during launch, non-operational satellites, and shrapnel created by collisions or explosions. As of last year, the estimate for the total amount of material in orbit exceeds 8,000 metric tons (17 million pounds) with an estimated value in the tens of billions of dollars.
As humanity pushes further out into space, this space debris presents an opportunity to make use of materials already in orbit, such as:
- Residual fuels
- Other volatile liquids and gasses
With this global ideation challenge, NASA seeks to inspire innovators of all ages, skills, and interests to consider how humanity can make use of these materials to explore the cosmos in a more sustainable and cost effective way. Remember: every kilogram of space debris that can be recycled is one less kilogram that needs to be launched, saving time, fuel, and money.
The goal of this challenge is to explore whether recycling of space assets (sections of rockets, satellites, etc.) can be cost-effective versus launching new materials into space. Since launch costs increase proportionally with mass, recycling larger objects means that cost effectiveness will improve as more and more mass is recycled and reused while in orbit. Consequently, NASA is targeting those objects with the largest mass, typically greater than 1 metric ton such as:
- The International Space Station (ISS) at the end of its operational life: 420 metric tons
- Some upper stages of rockets
- Satellites like
- GPS satellites: nearly 4 metric tons
- The Terra Satellite: almost 5 metric tons
- The Hubble Space Telescope: about 11 metric tons
- Other large sections of rockets and satellites
NASA is interested in all aspects of recycling spacecraft including:
- Safety operations such as removing liquids, gasses or electrical energy
- Materials separation
- Feedstock forming
We challenge solvers to envision technologies or approaches that could recycle large space debris and end-of-life spacecraft, obtaining usable materials and without creating new orbital debris. Proposed approaches should describe technologies capable of performing one or more of these operations in microgravity. Approaches which handle multiple common spacecraft materials are highly desirable. Furthermore, approaches should be cost effective (recycling more mass than its own), sustainable (minimal support needed, especially from additional launches), and robust (ideally able to process multiple spacecraft).
Ideally, any technology described would be ready for deployment in a 2030 timeframe. Note that space debris capture is assumed to have already happened and is not part of this challenge.