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ISS piss recycler packs up again on eve of Atlantis visit

O for a beaker of the warm south

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The International Space Station's buggy urine-recycling unit has packed up again, according to reports. With the shuttle Atlantis due to visit shortly, temporarily boosting the number of people at the orbiting outpost to 12, it's feared that areas of the station may begin to fill up with containers of astronaut piss awaiting treatment.

The crew of the ISS began drinking their own bodily wastes in May, following a troublesome deployment aboard the station for the quarter-billion-dollar water-replenishment system. The barrel-shaped Urine Processor Assembly in particular proved unreliable, at one point triggering a fire alarm and repeatedly breaking down.

The golden barrel is critical for the smooth functioning of the station, however, as the ISS has now moved to operation with larger 6-person crews - and the US shuttle fleet is shortly to cease operation. The shuttles' fuel-cell power supplies produce clean water as an exhaust byproduct, which is then supplied to the orbital facility. Shipping water up from Earth is prohibitively expensive.

Now Space.com reports that the buggy barrel, which has been serving up crystal-pure draughts of "yesterday's coffee" and keeping the station's (golden) showers supplied since May with only intermittent hiccups, has gone down again. The crowded ISS, with double the usual number of people aboard, will become even more confined as "urine bags" awaiting processing pile up.

"If we can't get it running again, yes it will have an impact," confirmed NASA spokeswoman Kelly Humphries. However she said there were substantial reserves of water aboard the station, enough to keep a six-person complement alive for months without any need for self-sourced refreshments.

The rest of the ISS' water-recovery system, which harvests moistening goodness from sweat in the station's atmosphere, is said to be working fine.

Atlantis is due to blast off on Monday, and reach the station on Wednesday. Top NASA piss-extraction experts are hoping to get the golden-barrel unit back in operation again, directing repairs by the astronauts currently in orbit. ®

Bootnote

Not only do ISS astronauts drink their own and their crewmates' recycled sweat, breath-moisture and urine - they also drink rat piss on occasion. Seriously: according to NASA, even the experimental animals aboard the station have their waste liquid recovered.

"A full complement of 72 rats would equal about one human in terms of water reclamation," says the space agency's Layne Carter.

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