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Astronauts reclaiming drinking water in space

November 25, 2008 6:45:58 PM PST
Aboard the International Space Station astronauts are getting better results from a new refrigerator-sized device that will help them recycle their water. They're now able to get almost every drop.

But, the project remains a work in progress.

For all the excitement in space travel, one rule remains constant; Success or failure still depends on the little stuff.

Micahel Flynn is a Life Sciences Engineer at NASA Ames in Mountain View. He told ABC7, "There are always problems with new systems. Nothing ever goes according to plan."

This includes the most basic of human functions. So, it should not have been surprising when crews at the International Space Station began having problems with a new $160 million device that converts urine into drinking water.

"Here on Earth people look at human waste as something disgusting to be gotten rid of. But in space flight applications human waste, that's what's going to keep you alive," said Flynn.

Flynn is already working on the next generation of water-purification devices including one that distills water using one-sixth the energy required on Earth and saves ninety-eight percent from every gallon. Another system he's working on cleans the soap out of water by using a membrane.

"A system like this could be ideal because it would treat all that soap water, all that laundry water, recyle it all back so it could be reused in a laundry application," he said.

The ultimate goal is to build a life-support system that is completely self-sustaining and does not require anything to be brought up or down.

Because water weighs so much it is very expensive to put into space. Astronauts already reclaim water from the air they exhale, but converting it from urine has been a bit of a holy grail. With a closed system and no waste from a machine like this, men and women could establish bases on the moon, or on mars.

"For instance if we were going to go to Mars, we'd spend about ayear on the surface and when we left Mars, there would be no indication that anybody had been there before," said Flynn.

The machines being engineered now in Mountain View might be operational in twenty years. Fortunately, the recycling machine up in space right now is finally working.

It gives a new definition to the phrase "flushed with success."


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