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The International Space Station just dumped a bunch of trash on Earth, but it’s totally fine

Published Jul 29th, 2019 6:21PM EDT
iss garbage disposal
Image: NASA

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It’s been a busy few days at the International Space Station. The orbiting laboratory just took delivery of a new shipment of cargo from Earth (launched last week via a SpaceX Falcon 9), and the crew is busy unpacking all the new toys and materials they just received. They also sent a Russian cargo ship packing, but it won’t actually be returning to Earth.

Early this morning, the docking compartment on the Russian section of the ISS released the Progress 72 cargo spacecraft which had been hanging out for roughly four months. It was sent with a full complement of supplies for the crew, and when it was released it was quite literally full of trash.

Like any home or office, the International Space Station accumulates a lot of junk that is no longer needed by its residents. There’s no garbage pick-up in space, so the scientists onboard use docked cargo ships like the Progress 72 spacecraft to hold their refuse.

There are lots of ways to dispose of garbage here on Earth, from recycling into new material, dumping it in a landfill (ew), or incinerating it. The cool thing about the ISS is that it has access to one of the largest incinerators imaginable in the form of Earth’s atmosphere.

When spacecraft (or rocks, or satellites, or anything else) comes into contact with Earth’s atmosphere the intense friction sparks intense flames, often destroying whatever it is that’s passing through. The Progress 72 spacecraft is no different, and since the spacecraft is expendable it serves as the perfect trash receptacle.

Russia’s Pirs Docking Compartment port opened up today at 6:44 a.m. EDT when the Progress 72 (72P) cargo craft undocked completing a four-month stay at the orbiting lab. It will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere loaded with trash and discarded gear for a fiery, but safe disposal over the Pacific Ocean.