Space travel produces a lot of garbage — towels, food packaging, human waste, javelins. (Yeah, I don’t know about the javelins — ask the astronauts.) So NASA is looking for ways to recycle some of that refuse into stuff that’s actually useful for a space mission. For instance, researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center have devised a trash compactor that turns waste into eight-inch radiation-shielding tiles.

The basic idea is that the compactor melts down refuse like plastic bottles, old clothes, duct tape, and drink pouches by subjecting it to oven-like heat. Then the melted-down trash is formed into tiles that can be used in sleeping quarters or storm shelters. Water released from the trash in the compacting process might even be recoverable for padding out the astronauts’ limited water supplies.

The technology isn’t perfect yet — they’re still making sure the tiles are sterile, rather than “sure, probably sterile enough.” But if it works, it sure beats leaving garbage lying around all over space.

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