NASA has made significant strides in advancing technology that may be key in future Moon missions and beyond. This week, the space agency announced that the International Space Station’s Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) is capable of recycling 98 percent of all water astronauts introduce to the station, including perspiration and urine. Functionally, the system is akin to the fictional “Stillsuits” from Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune.
One part of ECLSS uses sophisticated dehumidifiers to trap moisture exhaled and perspired by the crew during their daily activities. Another part of the system, whimsically dubbed the “Urine Processor Assembly,” recovers the water from astronaut’s urine using a vacuum distillation process. The result is water and a urine brine, which still contains recoverable water.
NASA has recently started trials on a new gadget that can extract the remaining water from the brine. Thanks to this new device, NASA reported a 98 percent water recovery rate on the ISS, an improvement from the previous rate of 93 to 94 percent.
NASA’s Christopher Brown, a member of the team that oversees the ISS’s life support systems, expressed his enthusiasm about the development. He said, “If you collect 100 pounds of water on the station, only two pounds are lost, and the remaining 98 percent keeps recycling. It’s a significant achievement to keep the system running.”
Before you recoil at the idea of drinking recycled urine, NASA’s ECLSS water subsystems manager, Jill Williamson, explains that it’s not as off-putting as it sounds. The purification process, she says, is similar to those used in some Earth-based water distribution systems, albeit conducted in microgravity. She emphasizes, “The crew isn’t drinking urine, but rather reclaimed, filtered, and sanitized water that’s even purer than what we consume here on Earth.”
According to Williamson, systems like ECLSS will be indispensable as NASA undertakes more missions beyond Earth’s orbit. She stated, “The less water and oxygen we need to send, the more room we have for additional scientific equipment on the launch vehicle. Dependable, sturdy regenerative systems mean the crew can focus on their primary mission objectives without any concerns.”
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Water Recycling on ISS
What percentage of water is recycled on the ISS?
NASA’s Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) on the International Space Station is now capable of recycling 98% of all water brought onboard, including sweat and urine.
How does the water recycling process work on the ISS?
The ECLSS uses advanced dehumidifiers to trap moisture exhaled and perspired by the crew. A subsystem, the “Urine Processor Assembly,” recovers the water from the astronaut’s urine using a vacuum distillation process. The distillation yields water and a urine brine, which still contains recoverable water. A new device is in testing to extract the remaining water from this brine.
Are astronauts on the ISS drinking their own urine?
No, the astronauts are not drinking urine. The water recovery process involves reclaiming, filtering, and cleaning the water to a level that is even purer than what is typically consumed on Earth.
Why is the ability to recycle water significant for space travel?
Water is heavy and takes up space on launch vehicles. The less water and oxygen that needs to be shipped to the ISS, the more room there is for scientific equipment. Also, a robust, reliable recycling system means that the crew doesn’t have to worry about water supply and can focus on their mission.
Who oversees the water recycling systems on the ISS?
The ECLSS water subsystems on the ISS are overseen by a team at NASA, which includes members such as Christopher Brown and Jill Williamson.