Space Stations and Plumbing

Space Stations and PlumbingIt may not come as a surprise to you that many of the systems and products we use in everyday tasks (such as aluminum foil) were created specifically to solve problems in space.  Free-fall, microgravity, and the lack of a suitable environment for human habitation have all lead scientists to great leaps and bounds in technology over the decades we’ve spent in space and low Earth orbit.  What may surprise you is the idea of just how advanced plumbing aboard a craft like the International Space Station (ISS) has to be.

A Tiny House, Forever Falling

The ISS, for all of it’s amazing labs, power systems, and amazing windows is also a house for a handful of people year-round.  Something that’s as simple to fix here one earth – a broken toilet for instance – can be a major problem with serious dangers aboard the ISS.  After all, at roughly $10,000 per pound, calling for a replacement part to fix the plumbing aboard the ISS is incredibly expensive (and you thought that new sink was expensive).

But beyond the complexity of repairs, the ISS has to function without the aid of gravity.  In your home, flushing, draining, and all flowing water gains help from the effects of gravity.  Even the blood in your own body uses gravity to keep flowing properly.  A pump creates positive pressure to push water or other fluids to a point of high potential energy, and gravity takes care of the rest.  This is why the tank on your toilet is above the bowl.  The only forces at work when you flush are gravity and momentum.  Falling water has a great deal of force.

But on a space station, where everything is falling together at once, gravity isn’t going to pull water anywhere.  Everything, from the atmosphere inside that tiny can of air and humans to the water in its plumbing, has to be pushed or pulled somewhere.  Urine and waste won’t even fall away from the body.  Special facilities on the station use air pressure to carry waste away from the astronauts aboard the ISS.

The Most Efficient Water Constructed Water System

We started this article talking about how space exploration has improved every-day technologies here on Earth.  The same can be said for plumbing.  The ISS has to reuse everything aboard.  It has a limited supply of air and water, so special recycling and filtration equipment is used to make sure that air and water lasts for as long as possible.

All water, no matter the source, is recycled.  Water molecules do not break down easily.  The water here on Earth is mostly the same water that has been here since the start.  That means, as long as you clean it up first, water can be reused again and again.  All of the water aboard the ISS is used, recycled, and used again.  Yes, that means that even their urine is recycled back into the drinking supply.  That is how amazing the filtration and cleaning facilities aboard the ISS are.  These same efficiency systems have paved the way for better water filters and reclamation plants here on the surface of the Earth as well.

So the next time you’re looking up at the sky, remember that there are, right now, people like you fretting and worrying about one of the most advanced plumbing systems outside of this world.


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