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Finding ways to clean ISS and future interplanetary spaceships

Fungi on ISS

According to multiple studies (see here, here, and here), a whole range of microorganisms, from bacteria (some dangerous) to fungi, have been found prospering on ISS.

The photo to the right shows a typical example of fungi growing on one of ISS’s older surfaces.

A European Space Agency (ESA) project is attempting to developing new coatings that will not only protect surfaces but act to clean them as well.

“With astronauts’ immune systems suppressed by microgravity, the microbial populations of future long-duration space missions will need to be controlled rigorously,” explains ESA material engineer Malgorzata Holynska. “So ESA’s Materials’ Physics and Chemistry Section is collaborating with Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, IIT, to study antimicrobial materials that could be added to internal cabin surfaces.”

The IIT team has begun work on titanium oxide, also known as ‘titania’, used for example in self-cleaning glass down here on Earth, as well as in hygienic surfaces. When titanium oxide is exposed to ultraviolet light, it breaks down water vapour in the air into ‘free oxygen radicals’, which eat away whatever is on the surface, including bacterial membranes. “Bacteria gets inactivated by the oxidative stress generated by these radicals,” says Mirko Prato of IIT. “This is an advantage because all the microorganisms are affected without exception, so there is no chance that we increase bacterial resistance in the same way as some antibacterial materials.”

The application however is not as simple as painting the surface. Right now they wish to keep this coating as thin as possible (“50 to 100 nanometres, millionths of a millimetre”) so that it could even be applied to clothing, which requires using complex techniques similar to those used to make semi-conductors.

Though hand cleaning would likely be much simpler and cheaper, there are issues. First, it isn’t as easy to scrub a surface by hand in weightlessness. Second, in a closed environment like ISS cleaning materials pose a greater hazard to both the occupants and the equipment. Better if the surfaces of equipment and clothing are designed to stay clean, on their own.

Conscious Choice cover

From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

 
Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.

 

“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.

 

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

10 comments

  • Exhibit A for unglamorous but necessary research. We can hope for some interesting spinoff developments.

    Can you imagine how ‘fun’ a (near) frictionless coating would be in zero-g? “I’ve finally gotten myself to a wall. Oh crap.”

  • Lee S

    Perhaps too heavy to be practical unless perhaps applied in molecular thicknesses, but copper and brass have been found to be very antimicrobial

    https://aricjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13756-018-0456-4#:~:text=In%202008%2C%20the%20United%20States,hours%20of%20contact%20%5B13%5D.

    I hope this isn’t a Russian pencil Vs American pen situation… Copper has been used for millennia as an antimicrobial surface. Plus it looks pretty.

  • Joe

    There are cleaners that are not so dangerous to the crew that can be used. Bleach, while it can be dangerous breaks down very rapidly. You can even have neutralizers nearby or built into the cleaning mechanism. You are not going to just use a rag, but something akin to a carpet cleaner would work quite nicely.

  • Edward

    it isn’t as easy to scrub a surface by hand in weightlessness

    Elbow grease does not work as well in free fall? Pledge™ works on Earth, why not space?

    Ah. The idiosyncrasies of the new environment.

    However, what do they do on submarines? This is one of the areas in which both submarines and space stations have similar problems in similar environments (confined and closed spaces, recirculated air, and cetera) and possibly similar solutions.

    From the ESA article:

    The IIT team has begun work on titanium oxide, also known as ‘titania’, used for example in self-cleaning glass down here on Earth, as well as in hygienic surfaces. When titanium oxide is exposed to ultraviolet light, it breaks down water vapour in the air into ‘free oxygen radicals’, which eat away whatever is on the surface, including bacterial membranes.

    There are several surfaces that are hidden behind panels and racks that may also need cleaning. The cleaning job could be quite time consuming.

    This topic reminds me of Don Knotts’s movie, The Reluctant Astronaut, in which he is hired by NASA as a janitor, because mission success depends upon cleanliness.

  • Col Beausabre

    I want to know where the cockroaches are hiding. And don’t tell me there are none

  • wayne

    Question:
    Do they use any type of UV-C light in their ventilation system?
    (Destroys mold and fungi at the molecular level and the effect is cumulative)

    On a more fanciful note–
    I’d suggest silver plating all environmental surfaces.
    It’s low tech and won’t require a billion dollars to study.

  • A A Ron

    Good god, give them a bottle of windex and a towel how hard is that?
    Like them spending millions of dollars to design a pen that writes in outer space, only to finally decide to just use a pencil.

    Something simpler IS better

  • Gealon

    To address the suppressed immune system, there is a simple way to fix that. Spin the spacecraft already. It won’t work for the station, but any interplanetary ships, which are supposed to be doing science in zero-G, will benefit from spin derived artificial gravity.

  • Ryan Lawson

    @ wayne

    This is exactly what I was thinking, build a little UV bot that flies around the station zapping everything with UV when no one is around and coat any frequently touched surface with silver (or copper).

  • Edward

    A A Ron wrote: “Good god, give them a bottle of windex and a towel how hard is that?
    Like them spending millions of dollars to design a pen that writes in outer space, only to finally decide to just use a pencil.

    https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/90884/why-do-astronauts-use-space-pens-instead-pencils

    It’s often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

    It’s also entirely false.

    What does NASA say on the subject?
    https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/spinoff/How_NASA_Astronauts_Write_in_Space

    Why not just use a pencil?

    NASA wanted an alternative to pencils because the lead could easily break off and float away, creating a hazard to astronauts and sensitive electronics on the spacecraft. Cosmonauts also have been using Space Pens since 1969.

    For the same reason that we don’t want graphite all over the place, we don’t use pencils in our thermal vacuum chambers for testing spacecraft. The rubber eraser shavings are pretty bad, too.

    Did it cost taxpayers millions?

    No. Paul Fisher at the Fisher Pen Company had already been working on a pressurized pen. That said, it likely would never have reached the heights it did, in orbit or in popularity, without NASA’s testing. …

    When NASA reached out to him looking for a pen that didn’t require gravity, he knew this pressurized ink cartridge could be just the thing – if he could solve the leaks. With NASA’s interest spurring him on, he finally succeeded when he added resin to the ink to make it “thixotropic” – almost solid until friction with the ball at the point of the pen liquefied it. He called the result the AG7, for anti-gravity, and sent several to NASA.

    As for the Windex®, it has limited uses, and we may not want too much of the active ingredients evaporating into the air on board the ISS. This is why I wonder what is used on submarines. And every time an astronaut wipes, he is pushed away from the surface. This is why the ISS has foot restraints, so the astronauts have something to push/pull on in order to stay in place as they work at a workstation.

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