Clogging up our landfills, rivers, seas
releasing a foul stench into the air,
always getting in the way
and making life worse for us here on Earth.
We’re talking, of course, about trash.
Even with an increasing number of people
recycling and using alternative methods of disposal,
our trash problem is a big one
global output of around 2.6 trillion pounds per year.
So why can’t we just get rid of it altogether
by launching it into the sun?
After all, we’re crowded enough as it is here
and there’s a whole lot of emptiness in space.
Well, there’s actually a slew of problems with
throwing our garbage right into the bright star of our solar system.
So much as you’d like to launch trash on the streets
and the most persistent telemarketers you encounter right into the sun,
here’s why that can’t really happen.
First of all
the decision to launch mass amounts of trash into space
would have to either be made by the government,
or offered as a service by a corporation.
In either case, the first thing they would do before
even getting into the logistics of such an operation, is look at cost.
Here we discover our first obstacle:
launching material into space on a probe costs around
$10,000 per pound, or $22,000 per kilogram.
That means throwing out the broken PlayStation 2
you found in your room when visiting mom and dad
would cost you around $20,000.
And when we expand this concept to include the entire US population,
rather than just one person Marie cargo in their apartment,
the obstacles increase exponentially.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency,
in 2017 the US produced 67.8 million tons of waste for the year.
If we use the costs associated with launching material into space,
that means taking care of the garbage produced just within the US
would amount to around $5.356 quadrillion per year.
Otherwise known as too much.
BBC Future estimated the cost of launching the globe’s 2.6 trillion pounds
of trash per year into space would be $33 quadrillion.
Current global GDP sits at around $77 trillion,
which presents an obvious problem.
With costs this outrageous,
even if engineers somehow managed to
decrease the money needed to launch materials into space by a factor of 10,
the cost of launching all the world’s trash into space
would still be many,many times the global GDP.
To add to the financial impossibilities of throwing our trash into the Sun,
scientists estimate 168 million rocket launches would be needed every year
to get all our trash off the Earth.
there were a total of 102 orbital launch attempts worldwide,
only 97 of which reached orbit.
Even if every country on Earth pooled their resources,
we have nowhere near the amount of
facilities and personnel needed to handle 168 million launches a year.
Using such a financially and logistically impossible system would do nothing
but make us into a planet of completely bankrupt hoarders.
Of course, that’s just talking about
the cost to launch trash into space,
not directly into the sun.
The cost of doing the latter would actually be much, much higher
than putting trash into a space orbit.
Why is that?
Let’s just say engineers come up with a miracle
that gets the cost of sending trash into the Sun
down to normal, comprehensible amounts.
How would we physically do it?
Well, as you’ll soon see,
launching rockets into the Sun is a nearly impossible task,
simply because of physics.
First of all, the sun is 93 million miles away.
So imagine you took a road trip from LA to New York,
which is about 2,790 miles.
And then do it 33,333 more times.
Assuming driving your imaginary space car
through the solar system worked
and old age didn’t get you first,
congratulations, you’re theoretically at the sun!
Except space doesn’t work like that at all,
which is also why we tend to die
in it without protection.
The problem with getting into the Sun
isn’t just the immense amount of distance you have to cover,
it’s the challenge of overcoming the Earth’s angular momentum
and creating a trajectory towards the Sun itself.
Here’s the strange thing about approaching the Sun:
even though the star at the center of our universe
exerts an immense gravitational pull
sending spacecraft towards it is actually much harder
than sending spacecraft away from it towards the outer reaches of our solar system.
The reason has to do with orbital mechanics.
Basically, the Earth is circling the Sun at tremendous speeds,
around 67,000 miles per hour,
in a sideways motion relative to the star.
This motion is good for Earth and everyone on it,
because it keeps the planet from collapsing in towards the Sun.
Generally, the closer a planet is to the center of our solar system,
the faster it has to travel in its orbit,
which is what makes approaching the center of the universe more challenging
than approaching the outer limits.
Also, when NASA wants to send a probe away from the Sun to Mars, for example
the craft can actually use Earth’s momentum to aid in its acceleration.
However, to send a probe towards the Sun for example,
when NASA sent the Parker Solar Probe towards the sun in 2018
the craft has to accelerate in the opposite direction of Earth’s orbit
to match Earth’s velocity so it can cancel it out.
Then, and only then,
can the probe start falling in an orbit inwards towards the Sun.
The change in velocity required to
achieve this transfer orbit from the Earth to the Sun
known as the delta-v by scientists
is pretty much impossible for our current spacecraft to attain.
The delta-v which simply speaking is how much speed a spacecraft can
gain or lose to reach a certain destination,
for reaching the Sun, it has been estimated at 13.24 miles per second (21.3 km/s).
But why must the probe be launched counter to Earth’s orbital velocity in the first place?
Well, if a probe was shot directly towards the direction of the Sun,
it would still retain Earth’s sideways momentum,
leading to it traveling in a somewhat diagonal path,
missing the sun by a long shot,
and most likely settling into its own independent orbit.
If the probe is launched in an opposite direction from Earth’s orbit,
but still not fast enough
to completely cancel out the Earth’s 67,000 mile per hour traveling speed,
it would still retain some of the sideways momentum and miss the Sun.
However, 67,000 miles per hour is an incredibly high speed for a space probe to attain.
As a comparison, the launch speed needed for a probe
to overcome Earth’s gravity is around 25,000 miles per hour.
Probes accelerating to get to Mars required a speed of 29,000 miles per hour
not that big a difference from the launch speed.
So this theoretical probe traveling to the Sun
has to make its way to the center of the solar system
while also shedding as much sideways speed from Earth’s orbit as possible.
The solution NASA came up with for the sun-bound Parker Solar Probe
was using Venus as a gravity assist.
Gravity assists help spacecraft increase or slow down their momentum.
To put it simply, the craft swings around a planet to get a velocity boost
from the planet’s gravity and angular momentum.
If the craft swings around the planet in a direction opposite to the planet’s orbit,
it loses momentum instead.
In the case of the Parker Solar Probe,
it will use Venus for several gravity assists
in order to continue to slow down its sideways velocity
and make a closer approach towards the Sun during each orbit.
Meanwhile, the Sun’s gravity will exert an increasingly stronger pull on the Parker Solar Probe each time,
drawing it closer and closer to its surface with each new orbit.
The gravity of the Sun will also rapidly increase the speed of the probe,
which is expected to reach a velocity of 430,000 miles per hour (692,000 km/h)
when it arrives at the closest point to the Sun in its mission,
around 3.83 million miles (6 million kilometers) from the star’s surface.
To understand just how rapidly the probe will be moving at that time,
a speed of 430,000 miles per hour means it would
be able to travel from Washington, D.C. to Tokyo in less than a minute.
So even though it is theoretically possible to
launch a probe full of trash towards the sun
the Parker Solar Probe mission should
make some huge flaws in this plan obvious.
First of all, in order to approach the Sun as close as planned,
the probe will use seven gravity assists
from Venus during a seven year long mission.
That is an extremely long mission timeframe
requiring a lot of set up , fuel and preparation
just for this one mission.
The cost of the Parker Solar Probe launch and mission
has been estimated at $1.5 billion dollars.
If we were to multiply all the time, effort and money poured into the Parker Solar Probe mission
by the absurdly large amount of probes we would need to get rid of Earth’s trash each year again,
estimated at around 168 million –
we would need an enormous amount of people and facilities with almost unlimited funds
working on the project non-stop.
Lastly, the Parker Solar Probe is only meant to get close to the Sun’s surface,
not rocket directly into the Sun itself.
That means that this long, arduous mission
doesn’t even have to cancel out all the Earth’s momentum initially,
just most of it.
If we want to shoot our trash into the sun,
we would have to employ even faster probes
and more fuel than the Solar Probe mission.
Even though a mission to launch trash into the Sun
seems daunting at the moment,
the Parker Solar Probe mission shows us
that science is expanding the limits of our capabilities every year.
The probe has already set the record
for the closest ever artificial object we have sent to the Sun,
beating the Helios 2 spacecraft’s record of
reaching a 26.55 million mile (42.73million kilometer) distance
from the Sun’s surface in 1976.
So do you think we will ever develop our technology
to the point where we can realistically launch our trash into the Sun?
Or should we focus on minimizing our trash output altogether,
and then coming up with more Earth-based solutions for our world’s waste problem?
That’s something we can’t tell you,
but we would love to know what you think.
Let us know in the comments!
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