Editor’s Note: The author of this article recently moderated a panel hosted by the National Science Foundation and the International Space Station National Lab. Discussion from that panel is quoted in this article.
Humans have been living, working and conducting science experiments on the International Space Station for nearly 20 years – but even this feat of engineering needs upgrades sometimes, like a new toilet.
Among the 8,000 pounds of supplies launched to the International Space Station Friday night is a new space toilet called the Universal Waste Management System, which was designed using astronaut feedback.
A new 360-degree virtual reality camera that can be used to capture spacewalks in all their glory, so that we might know what it’s like to walk outside the space station, is also launching.
Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft is also carrying a wealth of new experiments with objectives that could benefit our lives on Earth, as well as improve the quality of life for astronauts on long-term spaceflight missions.
This is the commercial cargo provider’s 14th resupply mission to the space station. After a first launch attempt was scrubbed Thursday night, the launch was rescheduled for Friday night at 9:16 pm ET.
It successfully launched on an Antares rocket from Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Toilets in space
Removing gravity from the equation means that nothing functions in space the way it does on Earth – toilets included.
“You don’t realize how much you take a toilet for granted on Earth until you’re limited to only two on the ISS and one of them breaks,” said NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan during a panel hosted by the National Science Foundation last Friday.
While the existing toilets are reliable, the new design is more user-friendly and easier to maintain, Morgan said.
The new compact toilet includes a funnel and hose for urine and a seat for bowel movements. In the absence of gravity, air flow pulls these away from the body. The new design begins air flow automatically as soon as the lid is lifted on the toilet. This also helps control odor.
The new design is about 65% smaller and 40% lighter, with more efficient waste management and storage. This will come in handy as more crew members come to stay on the space station with the addition of the Commercial Crew Program, which can carry more astronauts in a single launch.
Astronaut feedback from using the existing toilets on the space station went into this new design, which is more ergonomic, requires less cleanup, is easier to maintain, has parts that are durable and is resistant to corrosion. The funnel and seat of this design can also be used simultaneously, which was incorporated after feedback from female astronauts.
“The toilet is a great example of including all the feedback from various crewmembers,” Meir said. “This better accounts for those, much easier for everyone to use up there.”
The existing toilet was designed some time ago when there were few, if any, female astronauts staying on the space station. This design now better accounts for anatomical differences between men and women, Meir said.
Since water is a key factor of the life support systems on the space station, as well as those that will be used in future exploration of the moon and Mars, the astronauts’ urine does not go to waste.
“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” Meir said in a separate statement. “What we try to do aboard the space station is mimic elements of Earth’s natural water cycle to reclaim water from the air. And when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee!”
The toilet’s urine transfer system will pretreat the urine and feed it into a regenerative system that recycles the water.
A second toilet like this will be installed in the Orion spacecraft to be used for the Artemis II flight test, which will send astronauts on a 10-day mission beyond the moon and back in 2023.
A virtual reality spacewalk
If you’ve ever watched astronauts conducting a spacewalk outside of the space station and wanted to know what it was like, a new camera will capture that experience in immersive 3D.
Felix & Paul Studios, helmed by creative directors Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael, have partnered with the ISS National Lab in its ongoing “ISS Experience” virtual reality series. They previously sent up a camera in 2018 to document life inside the space station.
Now, the team, along with commercial partner Nanoracks, has modified a camera to withstand exposure to space and handle variable light exposure as the station passes through various sunrises and sunsets each day.
The camera will be mounted on the robotic arm Canadarm2 and film a spacewalk, from beginning to end, as well as the exterior of the space station and perspectives of the Earth.
These will be included in the final episodes of the series “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience.” It will be available to watch on multiple platforms.
“This new EVA camera will enable that 3D immersive experience during a spacewalk,” Meir said. “Spacewalks are the most challenging things that we do, both mentally and physically, and also the most exciting. You’re out there in your own little spacecraft looking down on Earth with nothing between the void of space except for the thin visor of your helmet.”
Meir participated in multiple spacewalks, including the first all-female spacewalk with fellow NASA astronaut Christina Koch in 2019.
Taking this camera outside of the space station after seeing the power of it inside the station will really make people feel like they’re there, Morgan said. He also sees potential for the camera to be used as a way to train astronauts as they prepare for spacewalks.
When gravity isn’t a factor
A variety of scientific experiments have taken place on the space station because the orbiting laboratory provides a unique environment that removes gravity as a factor.
One of the growing areas of research on the space station includes therapies for diseases like cancer.
Kernal Biologics is sending up an investigation that will use the microgravity environment to improve messenger RNA immunotherapy treatment for leukemia. Messenger RNA, or mRNA, is in all human cells to help create proteins, but it can differ in cancer cells compared to healthy cells.
Under the normal gravity conditions we experience on Earth, drugs tested for this are onco-selective, which means they can identify cancer cells from healthy cells and destroy the malignant cells. The microgravity environment of the space station can cause changes in mRNA. If these drugs are also effective in the microgravity environment, they could provide safer, more affordable and effective therapies for leukemia and other cancer treatments.
Other things are possible on the space station that simply can’t happen on Earth, like cool diffusion flames. These flames, which burn at temperature below 752 degrees Fahrenheit, were first witnessed in an experiment on the space station in 2012. They don’t exist on Earth.
“All flames have cool temperature chemistry that’s going on,” said Peter Sunderland, investigator of the experiment and a professor at the University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering. “Gravity is ubiquitous in combustion because hot gases rise, and a candle flame is narrow and tall. In microgravity, you get a much larger and spherical flame.”
His experiment, funded by the National Science Foundation, could have implications for the efficiency of combustion engines and even help reduce emissions on Earth. During the investigation, researchers will look to observe spherical flames in microgravity to better understand the physics of cool diffusion flames.
Multiple experiments by students sponsored by the ISS National Lab also are included in the launch.
Researchers and graduate students at the University of Adelaide in Australia have an experiment that will help determine how microgravity and radiation impact the stability of pharmaceutical tablets. This will take place inside the space station, and a second experiment will occur in Alpha Space’s MISSE (Materials International Space Station Experiment) Flight Facility on the exterior of the space station.
The University of Georgia is sending up its Spectral Ocean Color Satellite, a CubeSat, or miniaturized satellite, that can capture images used to monitor water quality and determine the health of ecosystems like coastal wetlands. Once it has arrived, this loaf-size satellite will launch from the space station on a Nanoracks deployer.
“The ISS National Lab takes great pride in working with our education and implementation partners to enable student researchers to take their science, engineering and technology questions to space far beyond their normal lab settings on Earth,” said Michael Roberts, interim chief scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and manager of the ISS National Lab.
“By collaboration with educators to support education projects on the space station, we hope to instill in students a lifelong interest in science and inspire them to pursue exciting career opportunities available in STEM fields.”