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Purified Urine in Space

NASA boldly goes where no filter has gone before.
December 19, 2008

A new comprehensive life-support system for the International Space Station (ISS) centers on a water recycling system whose specially designed filters and chemical processes cleanse waste liquids–notably astronauts’ urine and perspiration–so that they become refreshing, drinkable water.

Safe to drink: NASA’s new water recovery system–shown here in a rack for transporting to the space station–can transform waste water, including astronauts’ urine, into drinkable water by using specially designed centrifuges, filters, and chemical processes.

The system, which can produce 2,800 liters of water per year, is fundamentally important because it allows the ISS to house six crew members, up from three, and reduces how much fresh water must be expensively blasted off from Earth inside the Space Shuttle, says Bob Bagdigian, the project manager for the ISS life-support system project, which includes the water recovery system.

“It is a critical part for the next life of the station,” says Mary Beth Edeen, manager of the hardware projects office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston. “It is like a sewage treatment plant and a water treatment plant all in one.” Such a system would be a key to future human trips to the moon and, someday, to Mars.

The system was developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, AL. It went into orbit in November onboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour and was installed in the U.S. Destiny Laboratory on the ISS. It is currently being tested–samples were collected and returned to Earth on the shuttle for analysis–and is expected to be fully operational by May 2009.

The system is most notable for its ability to turn an astronaut’s urine into drinkable water. “Distilling urine in space with the absence of gravity is a significant challenge,” says Bagdigian. To compensate for the microgravity environment, the NASA engineers developed a centrifuge-like pretreatment system.

In this system, urine is piped into a rotating drum that spins at high speeds, extracting water vapor, which is then compressed in “a very energy-efficient distillation process,” says Bagdigian. The result is what NASA calls a “purified urine distillate,” but it’s not yet clean enough for astronauts to drink.

This distillate is then combined with the other sources of waste water, including humidity–extracted from the cabin air–that was produced by the perspiration and breath of the astronauts. The combined waste water is put through a particulate filtration and through beds of absorbent materials and other processes similar to those used in commercial, off-the-shelf water treatment systems.

In a final step, to rid the water of the remaining organic contaminants, it flows through a high-temperature catalytic oxidation process. The water is heated, and oxygen is injected to oxidize the contaminants to either carbon dioxide or other gases that can more easily be removed. And for good measure, NASA adds iodine to the water to keep microbes at bay.

To make sure that it works properly, the system will continually collect samples of the drinking water and send them back to Earth for testing on future shuttle missions.

The system is the first to purify urine in space; the Russians have a similar, but smaller, water processing system that is only able to treat the water derived from humidity in the cabin.

The new system is part of a plan to expand the number of crew members that can adequately live on the ISS without heavily relying on supplies from Earth. Once the space shuttles retire–currently scheduled for 2010–the shuttle replacements will have limited payload capacity.

The water treatment system is a small but fundamental part of NASA’s ISS makeover. NASA also sent new crew living quarters and exercise equipment.

Bagdigian says that the engineers are already looking ahead to how the water system could work farther out in space. “We are making plans to establish a permanent presence on the moon,” he explains. “This new hardware will give us the operational experience with regenerative life-support systems so we know what works well, and what parts we can improve.”

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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