NASA to Test New Medical Device to Help Sick Astronauts in Space
The filters for a new IVGEN system, a water filtration unit to purify water for IV drips in space, have to work when there is no gravity, which presented unique hurdles to the designers.
Credit: NASA/Philip Scarpa.

A new water filter system that could pave the way for emergency intravenous (IV) operations to help sick astronauts in space is about to get the ultimate test on NASA?s next space shuttle flight.

The new space technology, set to launch Monday on the space shuttle Discovery, is designed to filter out microscopic contaminants from drinking water to produce a fluid sterile enough for IVs in case they are needed in a medical emergency in space. If successful, it could also be used by the United States military in remote field operations, on submarines and ships, as well as in medical relief efforts, researchers said.

"IV fluid production anytime, anywhere, has great medical benefit on the ground as well as in space," said Philip Scarpa, medical operations manager at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Discovery is set to blast off Monday morning at 6:21 a.m. EDT (1021 GMT).

Scarpa?s team worked with researchers at NASA?s Glenn Research Center in Ohio to develop the new filtering technology. The study, nicknamed ?Project Clearwater,? resulted in IntraVenous Fluid Generation (IVGEN) water filter.

Researchers said the device marks a huge step forward in improving water quality during spaceflights. Discovery will also deliver a new space water recycling device that converts waste hydrogen and carbon dioxide gas back into potable drinking water.

The shuttle's ascent into space may be visible, weather permitting, to skywatchers all along the East Coast of the United States [how to spot the shuttle launch].

IVs in space

When it comes to medical supplies in space, IVs can be difficult to come by.

One challenge is their relatively limited shelf life, due to the need for sterility. And since IV fluids also take up a lot of volume (they weigh more than 2 pounds per liter), astronauts can only be supplied with an extremely restricted amount of fluids in space.

The space station typically has a supply of about 12 liters of fluid and any given time. One recent NASA study reported that a mission to Mars may need as much as 248 liters of IV fluids on board, researchers said.

Currently, NASA?s medical experts have identified at least 115 different scenarios in which a sick or injured astronaut could need an IV while living on the space station, mostly for rehydration of medicine delivery.

?On board or ?in-situ? production of IV fluids needed for medical treatments, could greatly reduce these costs and storage limitations, and would give NASA much more flexibility in how it can use the water it already has on the spacecraft,? Scarpa said in a statement.

A suitcase machine

The IVGEN is a suitcase-sized device that produces IV-grade water from available space station drinking water. It filters out microscopic contaminants like heavy metals and toxins. It will be mounted inside the space station?s science glove box during its test, researchers said.

The biggest risk is the formation of bubbles due to the lack of gravity in space.

"Bubbles are probably the biggest concern," Scarpa said. ?Bubbles in IV fluids are dangerous for a patient as well. If entered into the veins, they could cause a stroke by blocking the brain?s blood flow.?

Scarpa?s team devised micron-sized filters to trap and squeeze out the bubbles from the system.

During Discovery?s STS-131 mission, astronauts will run water through the IVGEN filter from a storage bag and run several cycles, then freeze the resulting water so it can be analyzed on Earth. The equipment is slated to be returned on a later shuttle flight.

The way IVGEN works is to transfer water from the station container's supply to an accumulator, which forces that water through a series of filters. The water is dispensed into an IV bag, similar to the kind used in hospitals. 

Once inside the IV bag, which also contains salt and a stir bar, the fluid is then thoroughly mixed together with the salt. This should result in a saline solution, same as the IV fluid used on Earth, then goes through one last check to make sure it?s completely mixed before being collected and frozen by astronauts.

"A perfect result would be to have output water that satisfies the strict standards for water for injection without any failures or performance issues," Scarpa said.

Discovery?s STS-131 mission is one of NASA?s four final shuttle flights before the space agency retires its three orbiters later this year.

The shuttle?s seven-astronaut crew is hauling a 27,000-pound (12,246-kg) cargo pod filled with supplies, science equipment and spare parts for the space station. The mission is slated to last 13 days. Three spacewalks are planned. is providing complete coverage of Discovery's STS-131 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz based in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.