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New ISS piss-recycler still troublesome

Sweat and tears only for parched astronauts

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Technical snags continue to bedevil one of the key new technologies being installed aboard the International Space Station (ISS): one critical to plans for larger crews. We speak, of course, of the troubled urine-recycler space drinks machine - intended to turn golden astronaut juice into cool, lipsmacking refreshments.

Following earlier troubles in which the Urine Processor Assembly (UPA) triggered fire alarms and then refused to produce any drinks, NASA beverage chiefs arranged to send up replacement machinery aboard the shuttle Discovery, currently docked at the station. ISS crewmember Sandra Magnus, who holds a PhD in engineering, installed the new kit over the weekend.

Apparently the new barrel-shaped centrifuge unit seemed to work well during an initial dry run, without any of the vibration and racket of its predecessor. "It sounded really nice and quiet," said Magnus, quoted by Space.com.

But as soon as the astronauts had topped it off with some self-sourced supplies, the golden barrel started playing up again. Parched space voyagers, hoping for a moistening draught of their own or a shipmate's reprocessed urine, were cruelly disappointed*.

Space station commander Michael Fincke maintained a stiff (though dry) upper lip.

"This is a head-scratcher," grumbled the veteran flight engineer and air force colonel. "We're having an interesting day."

Mission Control on the ground suggested replacing a filter assembly, but flow rates were still reportedly poor. According to Reuters, Fincke appeared to hint that in his view an increase of supplies at the inlet might, so to speak, flush out the problem.

"Good luck with the trouble-shooting," he told ground engineers at Mission Control. "We're standing by to answer any questions... or be of any [other] use."

In more positive developments, it seems that recycling equipment designed to harvest and reprocess astronauts' emitted body moisture from the station atmosphere is working fine. While the space explorers may not yet be able to quaff a beaker of the - ahem - warm south, Fincke is more than able to offer his crew some sweat and tears any time they fancy.

Nonetheless NASA are keen to get the urine recycler up and running. The space station will soon lose the option to take on water produced as an exhaust product of fuel cells aboard visiting shuttles, and lifting all the water requirements of the new six-person crews into orbit aboard Soyuz or private rockets would be extremely expensive. ®

Bootnote

*In fact we gather the plan is to ship initial batches back to Earth for analysis before anyone starts drinking the stuff in bulk.

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