A brand-new space toilet has reached the final frontier!
A robotic Cygnus spacecraft successfully blasted off from Virginia late Friday (Oct. 2) carrying nearly 4 tons of gear, including a new space toilet, to the International Space Station.
A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket lit up the night sky alongside a nearly full moon at 9:16 p.m. EDT (0116 GMT on Oct. 3) as it launched the Cygnus NG-14 mission to the space station from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.
The craft is hauling 7,624 lbs. (3,458 kilograms) of cargo that includes scientific equipment, an experimental space toilet, food, hardware and other supplies for the Expedition 63/64 astronauts living and working on the space station.
The launch came after a series of delays due to weather this week and less than 24 hours after a launch abort late Thursday (Oct. 1) due to a ground support equipment issue.
Launching science to space
Along with crew supplies and hardware, the launch today sent a number of exciting scientific investigations and equipment to the space station. One of the most anticipated items onboard is a new space toilet, formally known as the Universal Waste Management System. The astronauts on the space station will test the $23 million commode for future use on station and by future crews on missions to the moon.
The Cygnus is carrying a number of other investigations as well. For example, the radish-growing experiment Plant Habitat-02 aims to expand our knowledge of growing plants and food in space. With this experiment, researchers will test how the plants grow with different light and soil conditions. This “could help optimize growth of the plants in space as well as provide an assessment of their nutrition and taste,” according to a NASA statement.
Another experiment will help scientists develop more effective and safer cancer treatments. While Testing cancer drugs in microgravity could help reveal treatments that “make good candidates for safer, more effective, and affordable medicines to treat leukemia and other cancers,” NASA wrote in the same statement.
Another experiment will use a customized 360-degree camera that launched to the station in December 2018 to create an immersive virtual reality experience that will allow people to experience what life is really like inside the space station and even “outside” on spacewalks. And a different investigation will examine a unique process that could help astronauts on the space station to produce water and energy by converting the urea in human urine into ammonia.
Additionally, Estée Lauder will be launching not an experiment, but a skincare serum to the space station. There, astronauts will photograph the commercial product in the space station’s cupola window. This endeavor is part of NASA’s efforts to engage more with commercial activity in low Earth orbit.
Launch delays and details
Tonight’s launch was previously scheduled to take place Tuesday evening (Sept. 29), but the liftoff was delayed “due to poor weather conditions anticipated Tuesday and Wednesday,” NASA wrote. An attempted launch on Thursday was aborted two minutes and 40 seconds before liftoff due to the ground support equipment glitch. Northrop Grumman engineers were able to identify and address the issue in time for tonight’s successful launch.
The Cygnus is built by Virginia-based company Northrop Grumman, which, like SpaceX, holds a space station resupply contract with NASA. Northrop Grumman named this Cygnus spacecraft the S.S. Kalpana Chawla, paying homage to astronaut Kalpana Chawla who, along with six other astronauts, died in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy. Chawla also flew on Columbia in 1997 as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator. She was the first woman of Indian origin to ever go to space.
NG-14 is the 14th launch for Cygnus and the spacecraft’s 13th mission to the space station.
“As the 14th flight to the ISS, the Cygnus has been a workhorse for us in bringing cargo and removing cargo from the ISS … it’s brought up tens and tens of tons of metric tons of cargo. And it’s key [in bringing] a lot of the research, crew supplies, critical spares that we need on ISS in order to continue operations,” Dorth said.
Docking with the space station
The Cygnus spacecraft will arrive at the space station on Sunday (Oct. 4). There, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, the expedition 63 commander, will grapple the craft with the station’s robotic arm. Flight engineer and Roscosmos cosmonaut Ivan Vagner will act as a backup.
After capturing Cygnus, with help from mission control in Houston, the station’s robotic arm will rotate and install the craft on the space station’s unity module, where it will remain until mid-December before departing to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
The new space toilet (or the Universal Waste Management System – UWMS)
- 23 million US dollars
- 65% smaller and 40% lighter than the toilet currently in use on the space station
- can support larger crews
- will be installed adjacent to the current toilet in Node 3 of the space station
- designed for exploration and it builds on previous spaceflight toilet design
- includes a urine funnel and seat that is created to be more accommodating for female crew members
- features a 3D-printed titanium dual fan separator that creates a strong airflow that, in lieu of gravity, helps to pull the astronauts’ urine and waste into the toilet
- improves upon the existing pretreat system used to collect and treat astronauts’ urine before it is processed and recycled for reclaimed water
- measures roughly 28 inches (71 centimeters) tall, which is comparable to the compact toilets used on campers
- has an automatic starting system, rather than an on and off switch like current toilet models on the space station
- tested over the next three years
The “Universal” in UWMS is key: the central design concept can be easily integrated into different spacecraft and life support systems. On platforms like the space station where astronauts live and work for extended time periods, UWMS will feed pre-treated urine into a regenerative system, which recycles water for further use. For shorter duration missions, like Artemis II, UWMS also works with a system where waste is not pre-treated with chemicals and is simply stored for disposal. The toilet was designed to address astronaut feedback about comfort and ease of use. It also features a 65% smaller and 40% lighter build than the current space station toilet. Improved integration with other components of the space station water system will aid in recycling more urine, which, yes, the astronauts do drink after it is filtered and processed.
“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” explains NASA astronaut Jessica Meir. “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 regenerative life support system on the space station is critical to reduce the need to launch supplemental water from Earth. Initial lunar missions will be shorter in duration, so these complex systems may not be necessary. Roundtrip missions to Mars, however, will take about two years and there will be no opportunities to top off the water supply. NASA’s goal is to reach 98% recycling rates before the first human missions aboard a proposed Mars transport vehicle. The space station is currently the only in-space test location to validate long-term life support and recycling systems.
How do space toilets work?
In the absence of gravity, space toilets use air flow to pull urine and feces away from the body and into the proper receptacles. A new feature of the UWMS is the automatic start of air flow when the toilet lid is lifted, which also helps with odor control. By popular (astronaut) demand, it also includes a more ergonomic design requiring less clean-up and maintenance time, with corrosion-resistant, durable parts to reduce the likelihood of maintenance outside of the set schedule. Less time spent on plumbing means more time for the crew to spend on science and other high-priority exploration focused tasks.
The crew use a specially shaped funnel and hose for urine and the seat for bowel movements. The funnel and seat can be used simultaneously, reflecting feedback from female astronauts. The UWMS seat may look uncomfortably small and pointy, but in microgravity it’s ideal. It provides ideal body contact to make sure everything goes where it should.
The UWMS includes foot restraints and handholds for astronauts to keep themselves from floating away. Everyone positions themselves differently while “going,” and consistent astronaut feedback indicated that the traditional thigh straps were a hassle.
Toilet paper, wipes, and gloves are disposed of in water-tight bags. Solid waste in individual water-tight bags is compacted in a removable fecal storage canister. A small number of fecal canisters are returned to Earth for evaluation, but most are loaded into a cargo ship that burns up on re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Currently, fecal waste is not processed for water recovery, but NASA is studying this capability.
“Going” beyond Earth
In space, every part of the water cycle is key for survival and advances in technology can make a pivotal difference in mission efficiency and success. As we prepare to return humans to the Moon with Artemis and look forward to the first human mission to Mars, life support systems will play a major role in keeping our astronauts healthy and safe as they live, work, and learn farther from Earth than ever before.