Coffee Now Served (In Real Cups!) On the Space Station

posted: 12/07/15
by: Elizabeth Howell for Discovery News
Sam Cristoforetti drinks coffee
Samantha Cristoforetti/ESA

We all know how essential that morning cup of coffee is. Spacelings on the International Space Station, however, have to enjoy it differently.

Because coffee and other fluids go everywhere in microgravity, typically they sip their morning Joe in a contained container, using a straw. That could finally change after successful preliminary tests of six cups in microgravity that are apparently so stable with their liquids that you can even toss them a short distance. It's part of a long-standing experiment that dates back to at least 2008, when NASA astronaut Don Pettit demonstrated drinking coffee from a cup in space -- a cup that he co-invented.

Pettit worked on an experiment called the Capillary Flow Experiment, which is intended to help researchers better understand how liquids behave in microgravity. After years of work, the collaborators on that work are now working on 3-D printed transparent polymer glasses -- devices that got a high profile in March when astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti showed a picture of herself drinking an espresso.

Five of the space cups can hold 150 milliliters, and the sixth is a 60 ml half-cup that is supposed to work with the station's new espresso machine. The cup is "complexly designed" but stems from 2013 research where part of the cup had a very sharp inside corner, forcing fluids through that channel and to your mouth.

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"Wetting conditions and the cup's special geometry create a capillary pressure gradient that drives the liquid forward toward the face of the drinker," said team member Mark Weislogel in a statement. Weislogel is a senior scientist for Oregon-based fluid engineering firm IRPI LLC, and a mechanical engineer professor at Portland State University.

"Your nose is closer to the beverage, which makes it easier to actually smell it while drinking," he added. "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. It's a stable situation -- even though drinking scalding liquids from open containers while aboard the International Space Station is generally considered a safety concern."

Scientists added the research could in future be used to create better life-support systems for the space station and other spacecraft, since fluid dynamics is useful for other things besides coffee.

"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," Weislogel said.

The research was presented at the American Physical Society's 68th Annual Meeting of the Division of Fluid Dynamics in Boston last month.

This post originally appeared on Discovery News


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