Thirsty astronauts orbiting the Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have just gained a handy new source of water to eke out supplies shipped up from Earth and those from the station’s famously erratic urine recycling system.
The new Sabatier Reactor, named for the Nobel prize-winning French chemist who developed the process it uses, will combine hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce water and methane.
The station’s life support machinery generates oxygen to keep the crew alive by splitting water. Astronauts breathe the oxygen and emit CO2, which is removed from the internal atmosphere by scrubber machinery and – at the moment – thrown away.
The hydrogen from the oxygen generators is currently also dumped into space as waste, but will now be combined with CO2 from the scrubbers to reclaim useful water. According to Hamilton Sundstrand Space Land & Sea, makers of the reactor, it should produce almost a tonne of water every year. The reactor was delivered to the station by space shuttle Discovery, which will undock for return to Earth tomorrow.
In addition to oxygen generation, the ISS also needs water for drinking, washing, cooking and cooling some electronic equipment. Historically about half the station’s requirements were met by recycling used water, and the rest by deliveries from visiting space shuttles. The shuttles didn’t normally need to use up payload space for this, as their fuel-cell electric generators produce clean water as an exhaust product.
With the recent doubling of the ISS crew to six people and the imminent disappearance of the shuttles, the station needs to recycle as much water as it possibly can so as to save payload space on flights up from Earth. …