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Astronaut pee could help get us to Mars

Mon, 04/21/2014 - 8:16am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Urine, made up of more than 95% water, is one of the cleanest fluids in the human body. And on a protracted space mission lasting more than a year (one-way) — to Mars, for example — that fact becomes critically important.

NASA is currently testing a method to extract the urea — the main nitrogen-rich component in urine — and convert that into ammonia, which can be used to power the astronauts’ spacesuits, among other things.

Actually, the idea of recycling urine is hardly new. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station already turn their pee into potable water through a complex process of filtering, distilling, and oxidizing that extracts about 75% of the H20 from our, ahem, “deposits.”

“It makes yesterday’s coffee into today’s coffee,” astronaut Don Pettit said when the system was installed aboard the ISS.

Yes, in case you were wondering, this means that astronauts drink their own pee.

In fact, according to Science News, astronauts aboard the ISS claim that water made from recycled urine tastes great.

See: Engineering Update 54: A spacesuit powered by urine

In recent lab tests, scientists filtered urine through a bioreactor, and using a process called “forward osmosis”, converted about 86% of the urea into ammonia. This could ensure that an extended Mars mission — where resupply would be impractical — can maximize their resources and have enough power for a round trip.

The bioreactor could also preclude the need for a complex waste disposal system. At a cost of up to $10,000 per pound launched into orbit, releasing urine into space — over the course of more than a year — could be prohibitively expensive.

And it’s not like we can just store the stuff. We release about 1.5 liters of urine a day, and on an extended mission, this would quickly create cramped quarters.

Instead, we’d drink it and use it to power onboard fuel cells, creating an elegant recycling process – albeit, one I’m totally grossed out by.

But hey, if it helps get us to the Red Planet, I’m all for astronauts recycling their own pee.

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