By Patricia Guthrie
For The Herald Business Journal
Can recycling be successfully launched in outer space?
Tethers Unlimited, Inc., a Bothell-based aerospace technology company, plans to find out when its recycling/3D printing system is tested aboard the International Space Station.
The company has been awarded a NASA contract to develop and deliver a Positrusion Recycler to sterilize and recycle plastic waste such as packaging materials, utensils, trays and food storage containers into high-quality 3D filament.
Dirty plastic dinnerware will ultimately be turned into satellite components, replacement parts, and astronaut tools via a high-quality 3D printer, creating the first “closed-cycle” in-space manufacturing system.
The recycler will be combined with a 3D printer in a payload for the Space Station dubbed the Refabricator, or as it’s known around the laboratory of Tethers Unlimited, “recycling sporks in space.”
The process also helps minimize exposure of astronauts to harmful microbes because utensils and food containers are not re-used but sterilized and recycled, said Robert Hoyt, CEO of Tethers and its division, Firmamentum.
“We needed to make it as completely automated and completely safe as possible,” Hoyt explained. “Astronauts’ time is more valuable than gold. They are extremely busy on missions.”
The company has successfully run the device through a few manufacturing cycles in its sprawling laboratory. Performance in zero gravity is another matter. That could come in early 2017 when the Refabricator makes a long-distance delivery to the International Space Station.
Recycling would also benefit space travel of the future on trips that would last years.
“On a manned mission to Mars, the astronauts must bring everything they need with them,” said Jesse Cushing, principal investigator for the Refabricator effort. “Due to the incredibly high cost of launching mass to Mars, carrying every tool or replacement part that they might possibly need simply isn’t affordable. The Refabricator will demonstrate the ability to recycle plastic parts and waste to make new parts and tools on-demand.”
What to do with intergalactic garbage has vexed space travelers since the first moon landing.
Since it costs about $10,000 for every pound of weight launched into orbit, figuring out how to re-use what’s already on board saves money, Hoyt explains.
Recycling also saves interior space, points out mechanical engineer Kristen Turner, who is leading the food-safe utensil recycling project.
“Currently, astronauts use disposable wet wipes to clean their utensils and food containers after use,” Turner said. “These wet wipes then become trash that must be stowed, and they have to be resupplied on cargo launches. The logistics of supplying and disposing of those cleaners for a two-year manned Mars mission would be a real challenge.”
Funding for the system is from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program and is one of numerous awards the space technology company has received from the government since its 1994 founding by Hoyt and Robert L. Forward.
Forward, a physicist and science fiction writer, who died in 2002, is known for his research on gravitational radiation astronomy and advanced space propulsion.
Hoyt met Forward as a University of Washington graduate student and became intrigued with Forward’s research on long cables used for propulsion and stabilization of satellites, known as space tethers. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Hoyt says, sitting at his office desk surrounded by three computer screens showing space-age diagrams and images.
Fast forward 22 years. The company now has 33 employees and moved into its current location at 1711 N. Creek Parkway S, No. D113, in a Bothell industrial park 12 years ago. Advanced space propulsion systems and programmable radios for small satellites are among its technological inventions for space and defense missions.
The company has also just been awarded three new contracts from the military totaling $1.25 million to develop radio and antenna signals for high-bandwidth data that would use a system of smaller, affordable satellites. Called SWIFT transceivers, the system would be used by the U.S. Army.
“Currently Army tactical operations rely upon a few large, very high-cost satellite systems for communications services,” said Daniel Reuster, director of Product Integration for Tethers. But using a system of “nanosatellites” with multi-band capabilities would improve communications services for troops.
Space travel was strictly a government gig when Hoyt and Forward started Tethers Unlimited Inc. NASA and the federal government were the main research and development contractors back then. The two men worked first as consultants out of their homes, then formed the company as a partnership, then as a private corporation. Hoyt admits the trajectory of the company hasn’t exactly “worked out as we originally planned.” The early years were “getting more and more depressing” when NASA’s future was ‘doom and gloom.’
But then came new satellite technology and the concept of commercializing space. Now, how to rocket ordinary people (with gobs of money) into outer space has put a new spark — and definition — into the space race.
The company also tries to find earthly applications for its far-out sounding devices.
For example, the recycling system could be the solution to the piles of packaging material that come with every item ordered online and delivered to your door. Maybe one day Amazon’s pesky packing material will be re-purposed into your next Starbucks to-go cup.
And your future weather forecast might actually be accurate because of the nanosatellite/radio data system being developed by the Bothell company.
These mini satellites, about the size of a loaf of bread, have evolved in 10 years from “toys that didn’t do too much” into the basis for the creation of dozens of new start-up tech businesses.
Mini-satellite systems would provide much better weather imaging and information for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hoyt explained.
“Now, two or three huge (multi-billion-dollar) satellites collect weather data,” he said. “But a constellation of small satellites will be constantly updating weather data. It will dramatically improve weather forecasting.”
Now, wouldn’t that be out of this world?