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Russia Has Designs On Its Astronauts' Used Underwear

December 09, 1998

ONE of space travel's most pressing but least known problems-what to do with dirty underwear-could soon be solved. Russian scientists are designing a cocktail of bacteria to digest astronauts' cotton and paper underpants. The resulting methane gas could be used to power spacecraft, they claim.

"This will be a revolution in the science of biodegradation," says Vyacheslav Ilyin, project director and head of the microbial ecology laboratory at the Russian State Research Centre's Institute for Biological and Medical Problems in Moscow.

The disposal unit will be able to process plastic, cellulose and other organic waste aboard a spacecraft. "Cosmonauts identify waste as one of the most acute problems they encounter in space," says Ilyin. Each astronaut produces an average of 2.5 kilograms-or up to 9 litres-of uncompressed waste a day. To keep waste to a minimum, they are forced to wear underwear for up to a week at a time. Onboard laundry facilities are rare in space, although the Russian space station Mir does contain a shower.

Aboard Mir, waste is stored in sealed containers until a Progress supply module arrives with fresh supplies. Waste is then transferred to the module, which burns up and disintegrates as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. But Progress modules only call about twice a year. Meanwhile, stored waste builds up on the station, taking up valuable space and posing a potential health threat to crew.

The search for the most suitable combination of microbes is expected to take up to a decade. Many of the strains are stored in national and international collections. The researchers aim to have the complete microbial disposal unit ready by 2017, when Russia hopes to launch its first crewed interplanetary mission, possibly to Mars.
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