Astronauts can now safely stay for longer periods of time in Low Earth Orbit on the ISS, with the mission length currently being around 6 months. Extravehicular activities, whereby astronauts suit-up and leave the confines of the spacecraft to float freely outside in the vacuum of space have become regular events, with the time spent in their spacesuits ranging anything from 3 to 8 hours or so. Technological advances help keep the astronauts healthier, happier and better nourished, but progress in one particular area, a little-discussed area, still lags behind - namely, what to do with the doo-doo?!
Currently, when astronauts are launching, landing or spacewalking they wear while in their spacesuit what is essentially a giant adult-sized nappy. Although not ideal, the diaper serves its purpose and allows the astronauts to ‘relieve’ themselves in a situation where a toilet is not to hand. A few hours of sitting in your own poop or urine won’t do too much harm, other than perhaps feeling uncomfortable, however a real health hazard could be posed if that period of time should extend to a few days. With plans in place for longer-duration space missions, such as to Mars, or perhaps even in the event of an emergency situation, such as cabin depressurisation, astronauts may need to don their spacesuits very quickly indeed and to remain sealed in them for periods of more than 6 days (144 hours).
This scenario poses many problems that NASA is seeking to overcome – potentially with your help!
A challenge has been launched to develop a fluids and debris management system to be incorporated into the launch and entry suits, which will need to: function in a pressurised suit for at least 144 hours; protect astronaut health and safety; function and take account of the peculiarities of a microgravity environment; and collect up to 1L of urine and 75 grams of faecal matter per astronaut per day, preventing it from coming into prolonged contact with skin tissue or floating around and affecting other spacesuit systems.
Are you up for the Poop Challenge? If so, watch the video below and click on the link to find out more details of the system requirements and how you or your team can take part in this NASA Poop Challenge.