Thursday, December 9, 2021

Laundry: housekeeping on the final frontier

Astronauts may soon be able to do their own laundry instead of waiting for new clothes to arrive from Earth.

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The International Space Station (ISS) is a big, climate-controlled environment that crowds six people together at any given time.

Astronauts work hard and produce odours just like the rest of us and yet they can’t just slip into freshly laundered clothes every time they work up a sweat.

Doing laundry may be a mundane job on Earth but in space it presents problems.

Astronauts aboard the ISS currently re-wear their clothes multiple times before changing into fresh togs delivered on resupply shipments.

Nasa sends 160 pounds, or over 170kg, of clothing per crew member to the ISS every year.

However, soon astronauts could be able to do their own laundry.

Consumer goods company Procter & Gamble (P&G) said on Tuesday that it has teamed up with Nasa to develop a detergent that can be used in space, reports the i.

Washing clothes in space presents several challenges, including the safety of ingredients and the limited amount of water available.

The laundry project is expected to identify ways to preserve water on missions to the moon, Mars, and even at home on Earth.

Tide, the world’s best-selling laundry detergent brand and a division of P&G, has developed a degradable detergent, specifically designed for use in space.

The company says it is suitable for use in a closed-loop water system, where all water must be purified back to drinking quality.

With Nasa now working with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to put more people on the moon, and the possibility of manned missions to Mars at some point in the future, more sustainable laundry solutions are needed.

A human roundtrip to Mars could be between two and three years in length – a little too long to wear the same unwashed shorts and socks.

The first test of the product will take place next year, onboard a cargo launch to the space station. Teams will evaluate the effects of micro-gravity and radiation on the ingredients in the detergent.

Researchers will also be looking at how explorers might be able to clean their clothes once on the moon or Mars, under low-gravity conditions.

Aga Orlik, senior vice-president for P&G’s North American fabric care division, said, “The collaboration allows us to push the bounds of resource efficiency to its absolute limit, with practical applications for both the future of laundry in space and here on Earth.”

Humans eat smelly things. Our bodies produce stinky outputs. And if we build up a sweat, our clothes start to smell too.

But the mysterious, pervasive smell of space itself clings to everything the astronauts wear, and it doesn’t smell like laundry detergent. says astronauts who have gone on spacewalks consistently speak of space’s distinctive odour.

Upon re-entering the space station and removing their helmets, they get a strong, whiff of what is reported to be a mix of seared steak, hot metal and welding fumes.

Nasa astronaut Kevin Ford described it as “Something I haven’t ever smelled before, but I’ll never forget it.”

Maybe Nasa and P&G will be able to come up with some warp-speed pine-fresh fabric conditioner too.

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