Space travel is an adventure, but so is bungee jumping, and it comes with some hardships which can’t be ignored. At a space station, water is a scarce resource. The worst of personal problems in space is hygiene. Not that the astronauts do not care about it, but it is quite difficult to maintain cleanliness under such circumstances; whether it involves showering or laundry. It might actually be a perk of living in space that there is never a’ laundry day’ up there. Lucky, aren’t they?
Until now, there had been no economical way of doing laundry in space. However, an undergraduate at the University of Arizona is developing a new system which allows the astronauts to wash their clothes and use them for an extended period of time, while conserving water.
Space technology has advanced to a significant degree and the newest space shuttles can go up to the orbit like Skylab. But, the International Space Station has been up there for nearly 20 years now, with washing facility somewhat as good as a railway station. Astronauts go for weeks without the luxury of changing clothes or getting a proper wash.
Each pound of water costs US$ 10,000 to take up there. It is an absurd idea to wash clothes in space station, as it would cost way more than the clothes themselves. What happens is that the astronauts take enough clothes with them so as they may not have to wash clothes at all. What happens to the dirty laundry then? It is quite useless idea to bring it back to earth, so it is just incinerated along with all the space garbage.
Christina Morrison is an undergraduate student who is working with the UA professor of microbiology, Charles Gerba under the NASA Space Grant to find an alternative laundry technique that can save water and exclude the cost of throwing away space clothes. The idea is to use a combination of silver and hydrogen peroxide to clean the dirty clothes. Both chemicals have strong antibiotic properties which become even stronger when mixed with water. Morrison has proposed a way of incorporating silver-ion threads into the clothes like the germ killing socks.
Morrison and Gerba tested the idea on swatches of cloth from antimicrobial socks and treated them with dilute hydrogen peroxide. The swatches were then exposed to common human skin and respiratory tract bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. The treated pieces of fabric showed a 99.99 percent reduction in bacteria, as opposed to the untreated ones at 43.76 percent.
The peroxide treatment of the fabric is nowhere as good as a machine wash with detergent, but it is clearly much better than not doing anything at all. Morrison says,
“The clothes will stay germ-free longer, because of the silver ions, and can be laundered by adding hydrogen peroxide. Washed just twice, one shirt could stay microbe- and odor-free in the same length of time an astronaut would normally wear and discard three shirts. This saved mass would drastically reduce the amount of clothing needed to launch into space and allow longer missions.”
The research is not over yet. Team will ask volunteers to wear antimicrobial and regular socks, and then treat these socks with peroxide. Another group will then test these socks to check how well the treatment works.
Space hygiene is about to get better and cost-effective? We definitely don’t doubt that.