Being in a microgravity environment presents astronauts with some interesting challenges, and one of them is how to hygienically dispose of the many types of waste produced by the human body.
Although there are two toilets on the International Space Station (ISS), when astronauts are in space suits during launch, reentry, and spacewalks they don’t have the luxury of bathroom breaks. During those times, which could be up to 10 hours, they wear diapers because there are no other solutions. They have to go, where no one has gone before.
But with deep space missions to the Moon and Mars looming on the horizon, NASA says that diapers will not be a suitable solution for disposing of urine, menstrual blood, and feces. So, they are using the crowdsourcing website HeroX to launch an open competition to solve this problem.
“What's needed is a system inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands,” NASA states on the competition page.
“The system has to operate in the conditions of space – where solids, fluids, and gasses float around in microgravity and don't necessarily mix or act the way they would on Earth.”
In space, solids bounce around while liquids form blobs and stick to surfaces. It might seem comical imagining a space suit slowly filling with waste, but it’s not only unhealthy, it’s terrifyingly dangerous. Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano risked drowning during a spacewalk in 2014 when his suit began filling with water.
Finding a solution for waste management is clearly crucial for NASA. And if the glory of being an “Interplanetary Poop Engineer” isn’t appealing enough, the project also has three prizes of up to $30,000 for the successful designs. It’s open to individuals, as well as private, public, and academic teams.
The deadline for this project is December 20, and NASA would like to test the solution within a year and fully implement it within three.
So, if you think you’ve got what it takes to solve this sticky situation for NASA, go and apply!