Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… In Space

I’m an 80’s kid. That means I remember how to be environmentally conscious by remembering the three R’s. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

What I remember from the original three R’s principle is that not only is it good for the environment, but it’s also profitable as it reduces your costs (on energy for example). Similarly, the three R’s as applied to space would be good for the space environment (reduce orbital debris, etc). As well, it would be profitable from an individual space asset owner to be able to continue using that asset, or have a way to exchange it for value.

When it comes to space activities, we know we have to reduce. It’s a fact of the rocket equation. But what about reuse and recycling? I could take the example of a satellite, however there is one problem. If the satellite won’t be directly reused as is, you need a workshop to remove parts, change things around and then send it on it’s way. That’s what I’ll focus on in this article. Making a recycling plant in space.

The idea of a recycling plant is that assets could be transferred to the plant instead of deorbiting it. This would save money in many cases. For those assets that would cost more to transfer than to deorbit (most LEO satellites I suspect), then the plant owner could cover the additional cost in certain cases to obtain satellites of high value to their operation and to ensure a supply of hardware.

The plant would then be able to take that hardware, refurbish it as needed, then sell those parts to other operators. It could be a robotic facility with the possibility to expand it to a manned facility as opportunities arise. The cost structure would be pretty basic, station keeping and operating costs, as well as the occasional charge to bring some asset to the plant. Launch costs would be expensive, though I have an idea for how to mitigate that (I’ll leave that for tomorrow’s post).

This would allow operators to have access to some form of manufacturing in space, which would be key to developing greater presence in space. As well, there’s no technological reason why this can’t happen right now. You’d need a robot that’s as flexible as possible, then it would be up to you to be innovative with how you use it to make the most of this asset, and reuse as much of what you collect as possible.

But to me, the main attraction of this plan isn’t the benefit to each individual operator, or even to the plant operator. The benefit is to the overall space community. This would turn burns around so that they are pointed in the right direction. We want to get out of the gravity well, but we’re spending fuel to deorbit our assets. We need to be more efficient than that. Let’s use the three R’s to be more efficient.

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