“Urine” or you’re out

How recycling astronauts' urine will enhance space travel

Humans depend on water; it is a basic necessity of life. We use it to drink, make food and much more. In space, astronauts do not have the luxury of accessibility to large quantities of water though it is needed for daily operations on the spacecraft as well as basic survival. This lack of accessibility to water is due to the ability to resupply spacecraft often, as well as the difficulty of managing weight on board.  For this reason, accessibility to water has caused a large obstacle for long-term manned space missions.

The costs to launch resources such as water and other supplies to low-earth orbits, such as to the International Space Station (ISS) can cost around $33,000 per kilogram (5). This means to resupply a spacecraft on a long-term space mission such as to Mars, supply shuttles would need to travel extremely farther outside the earth’s orbit, which could be impossible. Even if shuttles could travel to the spacecraft’s on a long-duration mission the costs to do it could restrict the mission altogether. This has been an issue of discussion and development for NASA. 

In 2008 (2) NASA installed a water system on the International Space Station that “reclaims wastewaters from humans and lab animals in the form of breath condensate, urine, hygiene and washing” (1) the system that makes this possible is called The ECLSS Water Recycling System is also known as the WRS. The system works by chemically disposing of “Urea”, a natural organic molecule found in urine, as well as other smaller dissolved molecules through the process of osmosis (5). After this process, the liquid goes through a bioreactor that contains activated charcoal with the enzyme “Urease” which breaks down the Urea and converts it into ammonia, which could even be turned into energy. The ammonia that collected goes into a “batterylike fuel cell” that generates a small amount of electrical power by converting the ammonia into nitrogen and water (5). According to the NewScientist, the final step before ingestion includes the “addition of iodine to control microbial growth”  (4) where the device could process about 23 litres of water in less than 24 hours.  

Its taste may be a source of conflict but, Bob Bagdigian, the lead engineer of the system, says they did blind taste tests and no strong objections were experienced “other than a faint taste of iodine”, but he follows this by saying “it is just as refreshing as any other kind of water” (4). By investing in The ECLSS Water Recycling System, not only could the number of crew members double, but by limiting the mass on space missions, long-distance space travel could be more than just a dream. In time we could see that by recycling urine, and other water wastes, mankind could soon be having their first steps on Mars.

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