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Space Toilet Research in Zero G

Christie Carlile majored in aerospace engineering, graduated in June, and accepted a full-time position at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Christie Carlile majored in aerospace engineering, graduated in June, and accepted a full-time position at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

Exactly how, when and where do fluid streams that resemble urine - in terms of both flow rate and stream diameter - break up into droplets in zero gravity? Jacobs School undergraduates spent their spring break at NASA's Johnson Space Center finding out.

With the goal of designing a better urinal for female and male astronauts, the students boarded an airplane that made a series of steep inclines and drops in order to create the near-zero gravity conditions that astronauts experience in space. In these short windows of microgravity, the students performed research. They fired urine-like streams of water into a watertight observation box that looks like a 25-gallon fish tank. A pair of cameras collected data on how, when and where the streams broke up into droplets.

This fall, the Jacobs School team plans to move from data analysis to prototyping. Undergraduate Tim Havard described one promising design idea to Science magazine journalist Jackie Grom. He envisions "a receptacle filled with a honeycomb network that harnesses surface tension and the velocity of the fluid to capture the urine with minimal splash-back."

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