Nature calls: Astronauts take $23 million titanium toilet to International Space Station

The hi-tech toilet was on board a resupply mission which launched from the United States on Friday

Nasa astronauts have taken a new and improved space toilet, worth $23 million, to the International Space Station.

The titanium toilet has a new design and shape and is meant to be more accommodating for women.

It is believed to be the most expensive toilet ever assembled, beating a $19m order made by Nasa in 2007.

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply mission lifted-off from Wallops Island in Virginia on Friday with the lavatory, also carrying other supplies such as commercial products, scientific experiments and new crop of vegetables.

Lightweight and efficient space toilet

The new toilet weighs 45 kilograms and is 65 per cent smaller than the current one on board the space station.

It is called the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS) and has been designed strategically so it can be used for different spacecrafts and lift support missions – not just for the ISS.

Nasa is looking to use it on the Moon for the Artemis missions, as well as in future when astronauts are sent to Mars.

UWMS will feed pre-treated urine into a regenerative system, which recycles water for further use. Titanium was chosen so the toilet does not damage from the acid in the urine pre-treatment.

For short duration missions, it can also work with a system where is waste is not pre-treated with chemicals and is stored for disposal.

It has improved integration with other components of the space station’s water system, which will help in recycling more urine. Astronauts drink recycled urine and sweat after it is filtered and processed.

“We recycle about 90 per cent of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” said Nasa astronaut Jessica Meir.

“What we try to do aboard the space station is mimic elements of Earth’s natural water cycle to reclaim water from the air. And when it comes to our urine on ISS – today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”

Fecal waste is not part of the new or old toilet’s water recovery process, however, Nasa is studying the possibility.

Female-friendly toilet

After feedback from astronauts, Nasa has made the toilets more accommodating to women.

The seat on the new toilet now tilts up and makes it taller. Its new shape will also help astronauts position themselves better for fecal waste.

Funnels for urine has been redesigned and are longer. Female astronauts can now use the funnel and seat to urinate and defecate simultaneously – a feature introduced after a popular request by the women.

How do space toilets work?

Waste is pulled away from the body through air flow. The new space toilet has an automatic start of air flow when the lid is lifted, also helping with odour control.

The new system also has foot restraints and handholds to keep astronauts from floating away.

Astronauts have access to toilet paper, wipes and gloves. All of these waste materials are disposed in water-tight bags, which are stored with the fecal matter. The canister holding the solid waste is loaded up in a cargo ship that burns up on re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere.

As Nasa looks to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars, reusability of water and resources has become critical.

Regular resupply missions are not an immediate possibility for journeys beyond low-Earth orbit.