NASA’s final space shuttle mission, which launched today, will carry out a most unusual recycling experiment: Can you recycle urine into drinkable water with no power source in space?
For several years, astronauts at the International Space Station have been drinking from a machine that converts urine into water, but the machine consumes too much of the lab’s limited energy supply.
Astronauts aboard the Atlantis plan to test a recycling kit that doesn’t require a power source, but instead relies on the process of forward osmosis.
The recycling kit consists of a system of baggies: a semi-permeable inner bag containing a sugary solution, nested inside an outer bag. An astronaut will pump dirty liquid into the outer bag, and the liquid will slowly pass through the inner bag and into the sugary solution, leaving behind its contaminants. Here on Earth, the kit makes about a liter of sports drink-like fluid in four to six hours.
Astronauts will first test the kit with an experimental fluid – not urine.
The military uses a similar technology to filter out parasites, bacteria, viruses and other contaminants from dirty liquids, including urine, to make drinkable water for soldiers.