Recently we brought you the story of Spirit, the retired Mars Rover. Now we bring you a tale from Atlantis. No, not the mythical city, but the recently launched NASA Space Shuttle. The voyage of Atlantis will be the last space shuttle mission from NASA. Will another shuttle ever launch from the famed Cape Canaveral launchpad? Maybe, if it’s written in the stars.
However, that isn’t stopping NASA from conducting its mission, one part of which includes testing a kit that converts urine into drinking water. Yes, you read that correctly. No, the Atlantis astronauts will not be drinking their own urine aboard the shuttle.
NASA tells us that the kit, known as the Forward Osmosis Bag (FOB) system, “convert[s] dirty water into a liquid that is safe to drink using a semi-permeable membrane and a concentrated sugar solution. FOB looks at the forward osmosis membrane in a space flight environment and compares its performance against ground reference controls.” Water filtering technology is nothing new, but NASA is attempting this experiment in space, specifically in a zero gravity environment.
As reported by Wired, the International Space Station astronauts currently have their own pee-recycling machine that they convert urine from, but that system requires an external power source from the orbital laboratory to function. The new FOB system requires no external power source, just forward osmosis.
According to NASA, the process is simple:
“NASA’s recycler will use a sugary solution injected into a semi-permeable inner bag, which is nested inside an outer bag. Dirty fluid that’s pumped into the outer bag will slowly pass through the inner bag and into the sugary solution, leaving behind its contaminants. On Earth, the double-sack system makes about a liter of sports drink-like fluid in four to six hours.”
The Atlantis astronauts will be testing the kit with samples of dirty water, not urine. NASA believes that this experiment could have major implications for the future of space exploration. For example, “a small forward osmosis device could be incorporated into new long-exposure EVA suits in order to recycle metabolic wastewater (i.e., sweat and urine) into drinkable fluid.” Here on Earth there are more practical applications, such as providing clean drinking water to disaster victims and those in emergency situations.
While the thought of drinking filtered urine provides many with a certain ick-factor, the technology is available and shouldn’t be pissed away.