Reuse, redesign, recycle, recover, reduce. Today’s five R’s of a circular economy (CE) — a system based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems — are increasingly being adopted by today’s global economy.
For some, it may be a surprise that the space industry has used these principles for decades. While some may criticize the nascent space sector for being frivolous or wasteful as threats of global climate change loom, the emerging private space sector’s underlying philosophy emphasizes the renewal and regeneration of energy and materials. It’s a philosophy that could help improve life on Earth.
As private companies invest in next-generation innovations (i.e., big data, AI, additive manufacturing, and more), today’s space industry — what I’ll refer to as NewSpace — has paved the way for circular economies, highlighting the efficient use of finite resources while emphasizing sustainability.
The NewSpace sector offers a native environment for testing applications that are part of the circular economy, and eventually, those could help build a more sustainable Earth.
Closed-Loop Systems in Space Support Sustainability
The European Space Agency’s MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) spacecraft is a leading example of a circular economy model in space. The idea behind MELiSSA is simple: It scales down the Earth’s ecosystem into transportable sections for space travel using a closed life-support system that recycles every waste product into goods and water. While the previous model wasn’t made independently to harness CE principles, the current iteration of the system strongly integrates this philosophy.
The 5R-compliant system converts wastes from plants and ISS crew members to resources like water, oxygen, and nitrates to fertilize more plants aboard the space station. Solid and liquid waste is also recovered and liquified using bacteria that flourish in heated environments. This liquid is then transferred into sections of the spacecraft where elements are extracted from the liquid-like bacteria and algae to ensure clean water. Not only does this system liquefy waste, but it removes fatty acids and can help speed up the nitrification process so plants can grow quicker. The entire system is integrated as such that it helps optimize solutions for each function of the system. Thanks to MELiSSA’s supersystem, solid and liquid wastes become resources for humans and plants. The redesign of the marine ecosystem onboard reduces the harmful effects of wastes by ultimately reusing these human and plant byproducts, which are later recycled into resources that recover essential layers that help support life. It is a textbook example of how a CE philosophy system works.
It also addresses complex logistical issues to support a sustainable living environment in space. The project is still ongoing after decades and its applications within this upgraded technology have shown wide-ranging benefits that extend into industries on Earth, like automotive or smart buildings.
Space CE Comes to Earth
MELiSSA is an impressive example of how the space industry as a whole can help advanced and developing nations, especially when it comes to furthering sustainability. MELiSSA’s capability to 100% reuse resources in space has found its way into Earth-based applications and can assist industry players in addressing SDG goals while transitioning into a more sustainable world.
An example is how MELiSSA technology is used for environmental use and protection. Morocco’s University of Kenitra provides a village with clean drinking water, thanks to an innovation based on MELiSSA technology, organic and ceramic filtering membranes. It is the same type of membrane that has been used in Antarctica since 2005 and recycles “grey water” from everyday appliances like showers and washing machines into clean water. Kenitra serves up to 1,200 citizens. The use of such technology is already popular and will become more widespread in the future.
The space industry can readily show what conditions enable such a regenerative system and replicate it across sectors worldwide. Already, closed-loop systems are implemented in high-value industries that have identified that reuse, repair, remanufacture are efficient, while recycling is for energy efficiency and reduces GHG (greenhouse gases). But benefits can help both the space sector and new generation industries, indicating how Industry 4.0 is a crucial nexus between CE and space.
An Integrated Circular Economy Framework
The space sector is uniquely positioned to play a crucial role in today’s industries and the potential for sustainability is far beyond the MELiSSA project. Once CE and space are fully integrated into the Industry 4.0 framework that uses big data, cloud computing, additive manufacturing, and other fundamental innovations, it will be easier for the space industry to exchange CE ideas and concepts with Earth-based industries. Now that upstream and downstream space agencies have united toward new operating models, the increasing overlap of value chains can translate into these other industries.
The integration of technologies like big data, robotics, and 3D manufacturing can together reduce costs and production and will only improve with time. SpaceX’s reusable rockets and adaption of data, as well as RocketLab’s 3D printed engines, will only scale up as the NewSpace sector grows and emphasizes the reliance on these off-the-shelf parts.
Industry 4.0 revolution is still in its infancy, but as integration progresses over the next decade, Earth’s industries will see how space’s CE principles and processes help their sectors stay efficient and grow. Likewise, Industry 4.0’s innovations will help support the space sector as it travels deeper into our galaxy, and they have the opportunity to learn from Earth’s sector how to make the most out of innovative technologies and CE programs at home.
CE principles represent a vast opportunity to implement and adapt sustainable initiatives on Earth and advance these programs in deep space exploration. The transformative environment brought in by these next-generation space technologies increases the possibility to fully realize a more sustainable and profitable space industry and economy that will eventually get us to Mars and beyond. It is a symbiotic relationship that will help major industries on and off Earth thrive and help society evolve too.