Nov 25, 2015 | By Alec
Living is space is, as you can imagine, a strange experience. The weightlessness is one thing, but there are so many little things you know in your daily life that are suddenly gone, something that can get quite stressful. Things like drinking from a cup or even smelling the coffee within it is actually impossible. To make life a bit easier, three astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been testing a number of 3D printed cups that, among other things, enable them to drink a bit more normally and even smell the espresso they so desperately need.
The problem with regular cups being used in space is that liquids respond very differently in zero gravity environments. Tilting a cup slightly towards your lips usually does absolutely nothing to move the drink towards you, while too much disturbance can send that hot tea or coffee all over the room in tiny, scalding globules. That’s why everything is drunk from sealed containers aboard the ISS – safe, but makes a ritualized coffee break a lot less special and relaxing.
And that’s where these new cups come in, open-topped, 3D printed and safe. In fact, they’re so safe that astronauts can even do flips or toss the cups back and forth with the coffee inside, and nothing goes wrong. They’re also very well received by the astronauts themselves. According to the the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics, responses included ‘Hey, you can smell the coffee,’ ‘'This is eerily like drinking on Earth,’ and fits of laughter brought on by the surprise.
These 3D printed cups actually do a lot more than simply enable astronauts to smell coffee, as they’ve been made for an experiment. The results were presented earlier this week during the annual meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics in Boston. Six of these prototype cups were brought to the ISS as part of a research project on how fluid dynamics work in space. Five of these cups hold 150 milliliters, with the sixth holding just 60 milliliters – perfect for an espresso. NASA astronauts Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui thus had plenty to drink from.
So what makes these cups so special? Well, they have been 3D printed in transparent polymer to achieve shapes you don’t normally see in cups. A long plastic crease is used to keep the liquid right where it has to be, while surface tension brings it to the astronauts lips when sipping. ‘Wetting conditions and the cup's special geometry create a capillary pressure gradient that drives the liquid forward toward the face of the drinker,’ explained Mark Weislogel, a team member on the NASA project and a mechanical engineer at Portland State University. ‘An astronaut can drain the cup in sips or one long gulp in much the same manner as on Earth … without tipping their head, without gravity.’ Most importantly, the liquids – even boiling hot tea, stays exactly where it should be even without a lid.
With a single 3D printed innovation, one typical safety concern aboard the ISS has thus been solved. But aside from giving the astronauts a safer, more pleasant drinking experience, the cups are also reusuable to help conserve precious resources.
But of course, the NASA's Capillary Flow Experiment itself is much bigger than simply these cups. All elements are aimed at helping the scientists learn more about liquids in space, which in turn could be used to make liquid systems aboard space vessels more effective. ‘Management of water, liquid fuels, coolants and even drinks when the influence of gravity is negligible is a delightful challenge,’ Weislogel said. ‘If this can be accomplished passively, without moving parts, by special control of wetting properties, container shape and surface tension, we're all in. We love watching and studying the large liquid surfaces that can dominate fluid behavior in space. And if astronauts are enjoying their coffee in a richer, deeper manner than before … well, that's nice, too.’
Posted in 3D Printing Application
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