What would be the positive and negative affects of using other planets and/or space itself for storing trash - instead of wasting place for that on Earth?

Also, what are the possible obstacles of doing that? I have a guess that for example, shooting nuclear waste out would prevent several environmental damage that nuclear radiation can cause.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The big negative I can think of is the cost of launching it, especially with how far we would want to launch it. Storing waste in orbit is a bad idea since we already have problems with orbital debris, so we would have to launch it to accelerate to escape velocity. This would be incredibly expensive if we wanted to launch a significant mass of waste into space. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Apr 1 '14 at 21:32
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Not to mention the potential consequences of a hypothetical nuclear waste disposal mission experiencing a launch failure - scattering its payload in the enviroment it's supposed to be saving. For that matter, space launch seems to be to be at best a less-than-environmentally-friendly endeveavor. $\endgroup$ – Anthony X Apr 2 '14 at 0:04

Also, what are the possible obstacles of doing that?

At a bare minimum, there are at least four obstacles:

  • We can't do it.
  • It would cost too much even if we could do it technically.
  • It would be too risky even if we could do it technically and financially.
  • We just don't want to do it.

We can't do it.
The nuclear industry generates 2000 to 2300 metric tons of waste in the form of spend fuel per year (Source: Nuclear Energy Institute). We certainly don't want to put that waste into low Earth orbit. At a minimum, we need to trash the Moon with that waste. (Anything else will cost even more.)

I'll take the Falcon Heavy as a baseline. It will be able to put 13,200 pounds of payload into a translunar injection orbit. At a minimum, that means 384 Falcon Heavy launches per year. Note very well: That bare minimum means stacking the waste, unprotected, on top of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. That is unrealistic for a number of reasons. Being completely unrealistic and assuming that there's only one pound of encapsulating material per pound of waste, that means over two launches per day, every day of the year, just to keep up with the current production rate of nuclear waste.

To make matters worse, that 2000-2300 metric tons per year is the tip of the iceberg. Per that same source, we have accumulated almost 70,000 metric tons of used fuel. There's also contaminated water, contaminated housing equipment, contaminated control rods; etc. There's a whole lot of stockpiled nuclear waste. There's no way to get rid of it in space.

It would cost too much if we could do it.
Using my ridiculously optimistic factor of one pound of encapsulating material per pound of waste, getting rid of that 70,000 metric tons of used fuel would mean a cost of almost 2 trillion dollars. That number is ridiculously optimistic. Plug in any realistic number and the resulting cost will make the war on terror look like small potatoes.

It would be too risky even if we could do it technically and financially.
My factor of factor of one pound of encapsulating material per pound of waste is ridiculously optimistic. Look what NASA has to do for the radioisotope thermoelectric generator it uses for deep space probes. Those RTGs are built like tanks, to the nth degree. Rather than my one to one factor, a more realistic factor would be tens to one, or more. That would make the war on terror look like seed potatoes rather than small potatoes.

On the bright side (pun intended), if there was a mishap that caused one of those multiple launches per day to crash on the banks in Bermuda, it would give a brand new meaning to money burning a hole in ones wallet.

We just don't want to do it.
The ability to have multiple launches per day is every space fanatic's dream. Wasting that fantastic capability on launching waste into space? That's every space fanatic's nightmare.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Everything I wanted to say. Spot on! $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Apr 2 '14 at 11:26

One more reason on top of David Hammen's excellent answer:

Today's trash may well be tomorrow's raw materials.

100 years from now, today's nuclear waste might be useful for something. We just don't know what, and removing it from the planet could turn out to be a very bad idea.

Another point: Most of the mass of a launched rocket never leaves the atmosphere; it's fuel burned on the way up, producing that huge plume of smoke. (I don't have the numbers on this; does anyone else?) At least with current technology, launching waste into space doesn't even begin to make sense unless the benefit of getting rid of the waste outweighs the added pollution from the launch itself. A laser or electromagnetic launch system might change the tradeoffs, but I'm still skeptical that it would pay off in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, all of this could change in the more distant future. If launch costs drop low enough it just might make sense to, for example, put hazardous waste on the Moon where we can get it back if it turns out to be valuable. (The latter would be a good reason not to drop it into the Sun.)

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1. The best place to put that waste is a dry, stable underground facility where someday we just might find a use for it, but until then it will be safely out of harms way. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Apr 2 '14 at 21:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Aside: The idea of sending into the Sun is just dumb. It would be cheaper delta-V wise to send it on a solar system escape trajectory than it would be to send it into the Sun. The cheapest way to send something crashing into the Sun is to send it way past Pluto first and then use a small delta V to send it diving toward the Sun. That's still more expensive that sending on an escape trajectory. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Apr 2 '14 at 21:45
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen: Isn't a slingshot around Jupiter even cheaper? Still it might almost make sense eventually if delta-V becomes essentially free. $\endgroup$ – Keith Thompson Apr 2 '14 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen: ... and if you're really sure you never want the stuff back. $\endgroup$ – Keith Thompson Apr 3 '14 at 18:44

What would be the positive and negative affects of using other planets and/or space itself for storing trash - instead of wasting place for that on Earth?

I'll focus on the positive since others have covered the negative already and quite well. First, as you stated, it would remove nuclear material from Earth where human and other life exists. Second you could use that nuclear material to add mass and heat to another body that could in some very small way use it. Deep within Mars for example or a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn. Adding mass and heat to these bodies would be an advantage to a future spacefaring species. Unfortunately the amount of mass and heat added to any of these bodies is extremely small to say the least. 70,000 tons of spent fuel waste buried very deep on Mars, which weighs 631,710,000,000,000,065,536 tons is 1.1 X 10^-11, in other words 100 billionth of the mass of the planet. Adding other nuclear waste materials listed previously would barely change this and so would moving it to Jupiter or Saturn instead. But technically these bodies can be argued would be more useful if they were more massive and so that is an extremely tiny positive. A more massive (and dense) Mars would have a stronger gravity for human habitation, atmospheric losses, and a potentially active internal magnetic field. Again, extremely tiny amount of mass and heat added. Jupiter and Saturn are contracting and giving off IR radiation to their moons, this would technically increase those effects, but again so monumentally small that it would be like removing a single tiny microbe from your skin to try and lose weight. Most other bodies would not see any gains at all that would be useful and in fact the sun would be an extremely tiny negative since it would add mass and get us an extremely tiny amount closer to the red giant phase.

All in all still not worth the risks or costs but part of your question was what positive effects would there be for other planets or space.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.