Space Station's Urine Recycler Passes Key Test
Astronaut Donald Pettit, STS-126 mission specialist, configures the Water Recovery System (WRS) rack in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station while space shuttle Endeavour is docked with the station on Nov. 19, 2008.
Credit: NASA.

This story was updated at 10:31 a.m. EST.

After days of glitches and tweaks, a new recycling system designed to turn astronaut urine back into drinking water is apparently working well aboard the International Station.

The space station?s urine processor, part of a larger wastewater recycling system, worked non-stop for a full four-hour test and longer late Monday to the delight of astronauts and NASA engineers. The system is crucial if the space station is to jump to double-sized, six-person crews next year.

?Not to spoil it, but I think up here we?re feeling, the appropriate words are ?Yippee!?? station commander Michael Fincke said after the four-hour mark.

?There will be dancing later,? Mission Control joked back.

Fincke said it made a few noises like a ?washing machine in a spin cycle? for a short time but then went back to normal.

Another vital test at the station early Tuesday checked the health of a massive starboard side gear designed to turn the station?s right side solar arrays so they always face the sun and maximize power production.

Endeavour shuttle astronauts performed a four-spacewalk overhaul on the vital 10-foot (3-meter) gear over the last week to replace damaged bearings, lubricate it and clean out metal shavings that had clogged its intricate mechanism.

The test ran about three hours, or two laps around Earth for the station, with flight controllers finding that the gear was running smoother and drawing less power than it did before its unprecedented spacewalk clean and lube job.

Space station flight director Ginger Kerrick said flight controllers will be keeping a close eye on the power levels and vibrations from the starboard solar array gear, but it will likely take several months before engineers will know the results of the Endeavour crew?s repairs.

Urine recycler results encouraging

The urine recycler is part of the station?s new Water Recovery System delivered by Endeavour last week to collect astronaut urine, sweat and other wastewater and distill it back into potable water for drinking, food preparation, bathing and oxygen generation. The system is part of a $250 million regenerative life support designed to sustain larger space station crews with fewer supply runs from visiting spacecraft, with the first six-person crew due to arrive at the orbiting lab next May.

But the system?s urine processor only worked in spurts over the last few days, operating from as little as two hours to a peak performance of about 3 1/2 hours. NASA extended the Endeavour crew?s stay at the space station by an extra day Monday to allow more time to work with the balky device.

Fincke and Endeavour astronaut Don Pettit removed a set of washer-like vibration dampeners from the system during their first repair attempt Sunday. On Monday, the added a pair of support brackets to hold the system?s centrifuge in place more securely.

Monday?s overnight test set a new bar. Mission Control shut the unit down after the successful test and then restarted it for a new trial early Tuesday morning.

?I'd like to congratulate the entire team because we've been operating for four hours and two minutes now,? Fincke said before going to sleep late Monday.

Fincke loaded the urine processer up with a new batch and told Mission Control not to worry about running out.

?We?ve got a full tank of yesterday?s coffee here ready to fill up at any time,? Fincke said.

?Sounds like a dirty job, but somebody?s got to do it,? Mission Control replied.

The machine is designed to spend about four hours distilling water from astronaut urine. Endeavour astronauts will return samples of the processed water back to Earth for analysis, though NASA engineers plan to run more tests for 90 days before astronauts can begin drinking it.

?I think if we can get past the four-hour mark, I think we?re going to be good,? Pettit said.

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