Milestone: NASA just recycled 98% of astronaut urine and sweat on the ISS

Good news for future space missions – NASA just announced that astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have achieved a 98% water recovery rate. It’s a significant breakthrough.

The achievement – made via a method of recycling astronaut urine and sweat – might be crucial for space missions aiming to provide the basic needs of astronauts without resupply missions. This means things like air, food, and water need to be recycled or regenerated.

Ideally, life support systems need to recover close to 98% of the water that crews bring along at the start of a long journey, NASA said in a statement, and added that the space station’s Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) recently demonstrated that it could achieve that significant goal.

“A pretty awesome achievement”

On the ISS, each crew member needs around a gallon (3.78 L) of water each day – for drinking, hygiene uses like brushing teeth, or food preparation. It’s obviously impossible to bring multiple gallons of water on long-term missions, so it needs to be recycled.

For a long time, this was a major stumbling block because NASA couldn’t reach a 98% water recovery level. But now, they’ve finally done it.

“This is a very important step forward in the evolution of life support systems,” said Christopher Brown, part of the team at Johnson Space Center that manages the space station’s life support system.

“Let’s say you collect 100 pounds of water on the station. You lose two pounds of that and the other 98% just keeps going around and around. Keeping that running is a pretty awesome achievement.”

The milestone was reached by the ECLSS during a demonstration of the improved Urine Processor Assembly (UPA), which recovers water from urine using vacuum distillation.

The ECLSS is a combination of hardware, including a Water Recovery System that collects wastewater and advanced dehumidifiers that capture moisture from the air on the ISS – in essence, the crew’s breath and sweat. The collected water is then sent for processing and is turned into drinkable water.

The UPA distills urine but brine is produced as a by-product, which still contains some unused water. That’s why – to extract this remaining wastewater – a Brine Processor Assembly was added to the UPA, and the 98% goal was reached.

“Before the BPA, our total water recovery was between 93 and 94% overall,” said Jill Williamson, ECLSS water subsystems manager. “We have now demonstrated that we can reach a total water recovery of 98%, thanks to the brine processor.”

Better than water on Earth

NASA acknowledged that the idea of drinking recycled urine might make some people squeamish. But this doesn’t mean astronauts are drinking urine in space – in fact, the water produced aboard the ISS is superior to what municipal water systems produce on Earth.

“The processing is fundamentally similar to some terrestrial water distribution systems, just done in microgravity,” Williamson said.

“The crew is not drinking urine; they are drinking water that has been reclaimed, filtered, and cleaned such that it is cleaner than what we drink here on Earth. We have a lot of processes in place and a lot of ground testing to provide confidence that we are producing clean, potable water.”

Most importantly, the fact that the 98% milestone was reached is a very good sign for future space missions as astronauts will be able to spend more time in space during long stays on the lunar surface, for example, or long-term missions to Mars.

“The inability to resupply during exploration means we need to be able to reclaim all the resources the crew needs on these missions. The less water and oxygen we have to ship up, the more science can be added to the launch vehicle. Reliable, robust regenerative systems mean the crew doesn’t have to worry about it and can focus on the true intent of their mission,” said Williamson.

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