Publication Date: Friday, December 03, 2004
Another step closer to Mars
Another step closer to Mars
(December 03, 2004) Ames develops new water recycling system
By Julie O'Shea
Putting a human on Mars may still be decades away from reality, but that hasn't slowed NASA scientists who are continuously inventing devices to aid astronauts on a mission to the Red Planet.
The latest invention unveiled by officials at Ames Research Center last month is a unique recycling system that can turn wastewater into drinkable water. The new machine, which is about the size of a washing machine, can run for three years without needing more supplies or maintenance.
NASA plans on testing out this cost-effective water recycling system, along with other space travel devices, on a mission to the moon before using it to send humans to Mars. The federal space agency intends to visit the moon again by 2020. This trip will essentially be used as a launching pad to Mars, said Butler Hine, who manages the exploration office at Ames.
If the moon mission is successful, it could be only a matter of time before NASA is headed to Mars, Hine said.
The water recycler could end up saving NASA billions of dollars, said Michael Flynn, an Ames scientist who has been helping to develop the water recycler since the early '90s.
"For NASA, it's not enough to recycle water. It has to be very reliable," Flynn said.
According to Flynn, water accounts for 87 percent of the supplies astronauts need to stay alive on board, or about 40 gallons a day per person. Space officials estimated a mission to Mars will take three years: a year to fly there, a year to explore the planet and a year to fly home.
At that rate, each person would need about 44,000 gallons of water for the trip.
"It cost a lot of money to put things into space," Flynn said, who once estimated it would cost $11 billion to bring the amount of water necessary for a three-year mission into space.
"We could go to Mars tomorrow, but it would cost a lot," Flynn said, adding that "if you can't do (the mission) for $1 billion, it isn't going to happen."
With that in mind, NASA scientists have been working on ways to shave the cost of such a trip, Flynn said.
He said he doesn't know exactly how much money will be saved with the water recycler but estimates it will be substantial, both in cost and energy.
"To take a pot of water and boil it, it costs a lot of money," Flynn said. "We do it much more efficiently than your stove."
For example, the water treatment system aboard the International Space Station uses 2,900 kilograms of energy, Flynn said. In contrast, Ames' newly developed water recycler will only need 1,000 kilograms.
Flynn said this new water recycler, officially called the Vapor Phase Catalytic Ammonia Removal system, is similar to the way water is naturally recycled on Earth. Basically, wastewater turns into vapor, and the contaminants in that vapor add oxygen and a little bit of energy into the mix. The vapor turns into clouds, which ultimately condense to form a liquid, water that a six-person crew can use to drink, shower, wash clothes and flush toilets for three years.
A preliminary test showed that the machine, about 3 feet by 4.5 feet, can recycle about 13 pounds of wastewater into drinkable water per hour. Flynn said that astronauts will even be able to freeze-dry their feces and extract water out of it.
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