It's currently World Space Week. And right on time, yesterday morning the International Space Station (ISS) received a shipment of supplies on board the Cygnus spacecraft. Arrivals like this are a regular occurrence on the ISS—it's how they receive everything from fresh food to items for new experiments ... and sometimes even new crewmates!
But this particular shipment contained some unique cargo, even for the ISS. There was a VR camera, some beauty products (you have to look your best while you're in orbit, after all!), and ...
— NASA (@NASA) October 5, 2020
... a $23 million space toilet!
Meet the Universal Waste Management System
This new device is the UWMS, or Universal Waste Management System. And if $23 million sounds like a steep price tag for a toilet, well, we're not going to argue that. But this device definitely does a lot more than your average bathroom throne.
To put it bluntly, it recycles the astronauts' urine, or pee, into water. That they drink. We'll let NASA astronaut Jessica Meir explain:
“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat. 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!”
Who wants a fresh cup! Not so sure? While you think about that, let's look more closely at the UWMS.
The future of poop
This new space toilet was designed to be more comfortable than ever. Not that you'd know it by looking at it. Of course, the secret about space toilets is that you don't actually sit on them. You merely hover over them, feet locked into straps at the base of the toilet, as vacuum-powered devices draw the waste away from the body.
Urine is sucked into a tube and then filtered and processed back into water. Solid waste, meanwhile, goes into a storage tank which is later sent back toward Earth to literally burn up in the planet's atmosphere. That's one way to take care of it!
This new toilet is also designed to be more adaptable to different space craft and missions. On the ISS, it is being tested so that it will be ready for this decade's Artemis missions that are set for the Moon and beyond. Scientists and engineers will take what they learn for its first test run in space and make necessary improvements. Because like everything in the Artemis missions, the UWMS will be forced to perform its duties farther away for the safety of Earth than ever before.
For now, we hope that this new toilet brings the ISS plenty of relief. For more insight on this topic, check out our General Knowledge video from 2019 on How Do Astronauts Go To The Bathroom? Though the UWMS is an improvement, the basic idea is the same.