Why can't we just dispose waste out in space?

Apparently disposing waste on earth cause problems like pollution. What stops us from just sending crafts out in space loaded with trash, nuclear waste, etc?

Lifting mass out of the gravity of Earth is incredibly expensive.

Launching the Space Shuttle costs 450 million.
From here.

And that’s just into Earth orbit. In order to permanently get rid of nuclear waste, you would have to send it out of Earth’s gravitational field, which would be even more expensive. And what if a launch failed, and showered nuclear waste all over Florida?

They should build a tube.

And then, after you’ve shot it into space, what if you decide you want some of that stuff after all? Nuclear waste is incredibly valuable, and even normal waste always has some kind of use.

Also, rockets themselves produce pollution; enough rockets to send millions of tons of waste into space would produce a horrendous amount. And on top of that, we’d be throwing away huge amounts of substances that we will generally need in the future; just not in their present form.

EDIT: I see that Chronos beat me to the last point.

Maybe even a series of tubes.

Cite? I’ve never heard this in my life!

I thought you were referring to the material of the rockets themselves. One of the reasons for launching from Florida is so the stages fall into the ocean, gone forever.

How would WE like it if other intelligent life forms launched their garbage into OUR universe. RUDE!

Sounds like a good investment. I need to score me some of that – you know, the stuff with a long half-life, of course – for my portfolio.

Spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed into plutonium (useful for making bombs) fuel for breeder reactors, and other purposes.

Getting rid of garbage is simply not a problem with respect to finding room for it on Earth. There is, in fact, a huge amount of space right here. You could dig a big hole on some Godforsaken Arctic island large enough to hold all the garbage produced by human beings for the next two thousand years and just dump it there.

The problem with garbage disposal is:

  1. Finding a place you can put it CHEAPLY,
  2. That doesn’t cause an immediate NIMBY reaction.

Functionally, dumping garbage in a big pit on Banks Island is a great idea; there’s more than enough room and not many people there to care. The problem is that no municipality could afford to do it.

Financially, any city could just dump garbage into pits around town - there’s lots of room on most cities, really - but the presence of big dumps would infuriate the residents.

Firing garbage into space is just an extreme example of being functional but not financially sound. It would WORK, it’d just cost you more for one load of garbage than the entire annual garbage disposal budget of a large city.

What we term high level nuclear waste–the residue of spent fuel in the once-through cycle used by all commercial reactors in the United States–can be reprocessed into more fuel via breeding reactions, or used in a subcritical hybrid reactor. The cost of doing this versus the current once-through cycle is currently prohibitive, but when we start running short on natural [sup]235[/sup]U we may be cracking open those casks and processing the “waste” into fuel. As he is no doubt a fan of Larry Niven, he may also be thinking of Yet Another Modest Proposal: The Roentgen Standard. (friedo, it would be nearly impossible to reprocess waste into weapon-grade plutonium; in weapon material processing the [sup]239[/sup]Pu has to be separated from the fuel regularly before significant amounts of [sup]240[/sup]Pu and [sup]241[/sup]Pu are produced, which will poison it for weapons uses.)

As far as the question posed by the o.p., not only is it very costly to delivery even modest payloads of a few thousand pounds into space, it would also severely overtask the launch infrastructure to do this at a frequency that would eliminate even a small percentage of hazardous waste production, not to mention the risk that the waste could be dispersed in a vehicle failure or range destruct event.


Stuff launched into space doesn’t go away, unless you are careful about how you’re launching it. Space debris is a problem now for manned space missions. Sometimes, space debris comes back to Earth. That’s a problem if it’s a big piece of junk or toxic or radioactive, especially if it lands in an inhabited area.

It’s especially problematic if you have this stuff landing in an inhabited area and the people who find it don’t know what it is. I could see something like the Goiania accident (some people in Brazil found a cesium-137 source in 1987) happening if some nuclear waste that had been sent into space came back down.

Or the Kosmos 954 Soviet surveillance satellite that crashed in northern Canada.


I know Absolute Zero about space-related anything, but if the cost of the launch could be worked out (nice huge cheap disposable space barges), could we blast the bad garbage into the sun? It would probably melt/explode/burn up long before it actually reached the sun, so what would be the down side?

That’s an absolutely enormous if. Barring a Space Elevator (which would still be ludicrously expensive, and would only get you into an Earth Orbit), it costs an absurd amount of energy to get things up out of our gravity well into space. I worked on a project for Laser Propulsion of smal payloads into orbit – an idea that would have dispensed with lifting anything into orbit except the payload and the reaction mass. It’s still incredibly expensive and complex.
And I think you really want to get things well out of Earth Orbit. We’re already seeing the problems of congested orbital space – it’s only been a year since we had our first satellite collision (one satellite hitting another, rather than just random space junk), and the odds of that sort of thing are only going to increase if you keep putting stuff up in a relatively defined shell.

Getting things into the sun, even though it’s downhill all the way, is also going to require a HUGE “oomph” to change the orbit to a more severe ellipse so it’ll get into range of the sun. It’s just not at all worth it. It’s a heckuva lot easier, in terms of energy and effort, to send it to the Moon and bury it there, if you want to get it into space.

The problem here lies in the “if”. It’s ridiculously expensive to launch anything into orbit, let along all the way to the sun, and it will probably continue to be so up until we invent some method better than chemical rockets. If we ever do manage to get a cost-effective mass-induction catapult, or a skyhook/space ladder, or mass-conversion torchship, or something else that gets the price down to a few dollars a pound, we might do so with extremely hazardous waste. But until then, it’s simply too expensive.

The Saturn 5 could if memory serves lanuch about 50 tons to Earth escape velocity, so how many would you need to keep say NYC free of waste? Lets give it a try.:wink: