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98% - Water recycling in space reaches new high

Monday, 24 July 2023

NASA has reached a 98 per cent water recovery on its International Space Station. We find out how and why this is important for water security back on Earth.

How is water recycled in space?

As humans venture further into space, ensuring the availability of vital resources becomes paramount for the success of long-duration missions. Among these resources, water takes center stage.

In the challenging environment of space, where every drop counts, innovative systems are employed to recycle water and sustain astronauts throughout their missions.

Water recycling systems in space employ advanced technologies and processes to purify and reuse water. These systems typically involve a combination of mechanical, chemical, and biological processes to ensure water quality is maintained at the highest standards.

In NASA’s recent discovery, its ECLSS comprises various hardware components, including the Water Recovery System, which collects wastewater and processes it into drinkable water. The system utilises advanced dehumidifiers to capture moisture from crew breath and sweat. 

A Urine Processor Assembly (UPA) recovers water from urine through vacuum distillation. The remaining wastewater, containing reclaimable water, is processed by the Brine Processor Assembly (BPA), which helps achieve the 98 per cent water recovery goal. 

The BPA employs special membrane technology and evaporation to extract water from the urine brine. Collected water is then treated and filtered before being made available for consumption, food preparation, and hygiene purposes. 

Regenerative systems and their crucial role

NASA says the ECLSS systems play a crucial role in supporting long-duration space missions beyond low Earth orbit, where resupply missions are limited. These regenerative systems allow the crew to reclaim essential resources, reducing the need for external supplies and enabling a focus on mission objectives. Reclaimed water is cleaner than municipal water systems on Earth, assuring its safety and quality, according to NASA.

Christopher Brown, part of the team at Johnson Space Centre that manages the space station’s life support system says: “This is a very important step forward in the evolution of life support systems.

“Let’s say you collect 100 pounds of water on the station. You lose two pounds of that and the other 98 per cent just keeps going around and around. Keeping that running is a pretty awesome achievement.”

Biological water recycling in space

One of the most crucial elements of water recycling in space is the use of biological systems. These systems mimic the earth's natural water cycle and rely on living organisms to remove impurities from wastewater.

In these closed-loop systems, microbes, such as bacteria and algae, play a vital role in breaking down organic waste and converting it into usable resources. This biological process not only purifies the water but also helps to generate oxygen and remove carbon dioxide, creating a sustainable ecosystem within the spacecraft.

Water is a precious resource in space and recycling plays a pivotal role in sustaining the lives of astronauts. In the limited environment of a spacecraft, water conservation is crucial. Recycling systems allow astronauts to reuse water multiple times, reducing the need for constant resupply from earth. This conservation approach ensures a sustainable water supply for the duration of their missions.

As humans aim to explore and eventually colonize other celestial bodies, water recycling will become even more crucial. On missions to the Moon, Mars, or beyond, the ability to recycle water will play a vital role in ensuring the survival and self-sufficiency of astronauts in these extreme environments.