Schoolkids who have a chance to meet with an experienced astronaut tend to ask one question more than any other: “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” Put that NASA veteran in front of a group of moms, though, and a different query is likely to pop up:
“How do you clean your laundry in space?”
Turns out, for now, the answer is, “You don’t.” As NASA explains here, astronauts on board the International Space Station wear their clothes for as long as they can, eventually stuffing their dirty undies into a non-reusable spacecraft that’s “de-orbited” (ie, sent down into Earth’s atmosphere to burn up meteor-like over the oceans).
In the future, though, space-travelers might have less odoriferous options. UMPQUA Research Company, an Oregon-based organization, wants to develop an advanced, water-efficient washer-dryer combo that can work in space. The firm previously developed a single-phase laundry system that “facilitated microgravity compatible fluidics and eliminated problems associated with foams.” It aims to make its new appliance require even less water and energy … both especially precious resources when you’re stuck a few hundred kilometers above Earth for months at a time.
As with so many other space-related innovations, the new technology could prove plenty useful on Terra Firma as well. UMPQUA notes the low-gravity washer-dryer “has potential utility in any application where long term habitation in coupled with limited access.”
“Some obvious examples include isolated military outposts, research stations, naval vessels, research vessels, and commercial ships. Each of these installations feature similar restrictions on available clean water, energy, and waste storage. The ability to wash and reuse clothing with equipment that consumes small amounts of these valuable resources will reduce resupply requirements and improve quality of life. “