Skip to main content

NASA is about to launch an upgraded microgravity toilet to the International Space Station

NASA is about to launch an upgraded microgravity toilet to the International Space Station

/

‘When the astronauts have to go, we want to allow them to boldly go.’

Share this story

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins oversees the Universal Waste Management System with technical personnel. Rubins will travel to the International Space Station in October after the toilet arrives.
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins oversees the Universal Waste Management System with technical personnel. Rubins will travel to the International Space Station in October after the toilet arrives.
Image: NASA

Late Thursday evening, a Northrop Grumman rocket is set to take off from the Virginia coast, carrying an advanced space toilet for the astronauts on the International Space Station. Touted as smaller and lighter than the current toilets on the ISS, the new commode is also supposed to be more accommodating for women astronauts needing to use the space facilities.

Called the Universal Waste Management System, the toilet is one of two upgraded toilets that NASA is making to the tune of $23 million. While the one launching tonight is destined for the ISS, a second identical toilet will also be added to NASA’s future deep-space crew capsule, called Orion. NASA plans to send astronauts to the Moon using Orion in the coming years, and the Universal Waste Management System, or UWMS, will be inside the capsule for anyone needing a pitstop along the way.

NASA needed something compact but just as efficient as the toilets of the past

Since this toilet will be traveling into deep space, NASA needed something compact but just as efficient as the toilets of the past. Heavier and bulkier objects are more expensive and more difficult to launch. So NASA did its best to optimize the size of the toilet, making it 65 percent smaller and 40 percent lighter than current ISS toilets. The agency also says engineers have made the toilet more energy efficient. “You can imagine that optimizing those can help out in lots of ways because space and power are at a premium on a spacecraft,” Melissa McKinley, the project manager for the UWMS at NASA, said during a press conference last week.

Despite these upgrades, the new UWMS toilet more or less functions the same way as the toilets already in space. All microgravity toilets rely on one important thing: suction. Suction makes sure that the waste produced by the astronauts actually gets pulled into the toilet and doesn’t inadvertently float around the crew cabin. To pee in the current toilets on board the ISS, astronauts use a funnel attached to a hose, with a fan inside, which pulls the urine into a tank. For number two, astronauts “sit” over a tank that uses the same fan that pulls their business into a baggy.

The UWMS also relies on a fan system, as well as a funnel attached to a hose. But NASA says it worked diligently with the women astronauts at the agency to better design both the shape of the funnel and the toilet “seat” to suit them. “The funnel design was completely re-contoured to better accommodate the female anatomy,” McKinley said. “And particularly this is a concern when the crew members are trying to do dual ops — when they’re doing both defecation and urination at the same time.” The women’s input helped inform the funnel’s shape, length, and position next to the toilet, according to McKinley. The seat was also shaped to make it easier for the women astronauts to go number two while using the hose.

Another major feature of this toilet is that NASA engineers used a special 3D printing technique to make various parts of the system out of exotic metals like Inconel, Elgiloy, and titanium. These are robust metals, which are needed so that the toilet can withstand a very acidic solution used inside the system to treat the urine. Urine can sometimes contain solid deposits that get stuck in the toilet and build up over time, so NASA pretreats the urine with an acidic solution to break those deposits down before it sends it to an on-board recycling system. 

“The funnel design was was completely re-contoured to better accommodate the female anatomy.”

“The acid that we use as the pretreat is very strong,” Jim Fuller, the project manager for the UWMS at Collins Aerospace, which helped develop the toilet, said during the press conference. “It’s so strong that there’s only a handful of metals that NASA is aware of that can hold up to this pretreat over an extended period of time.” Those metals tend to be heavy, though, so NASA came up with a special 3D printing technique to create the parts it needed, allowing them to be made more lightweight than usual. Perhaps the biggest 3D-printed piece in the system is the toilet’s titanium fan, which is responsible for pulling in all the waste.

The Universal Waste Management System undergoing testing
The Universal Waste Management System undergoing testing
Image: NASA

One last big upgrade on this system is that it’s all automatic. Right now, astronauts need to turn on a switch to use the other toilets on the ISS, but the UWMS fan automatically comes on when astronauts either remove the funnel from its cradle or lift the seat to the “commode.”

In the meantime, NASA has even more space toilets to design

NASA has done some testing with the toilet on the ground, orienting it in different positions to see how well the suction worked. Now, the toilet is slated for takeoff at 9:38PM ET on Thursday, on top of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Riding inside Northrop’s Cygnus cargo capsule, the toilet will be retrieved by the astronauts once the capsule is attached to the ISS. The astronauts will install the UWMS next to one of the current toilets already on board and test it over the first three months. Eventually, the toilet will just become another restroom option for the astronauts on board the ISS.

In the meantime, NASA has even more space toilets to design. In June, the space agency started looking for designs for toilets that astronauts could use when working on the Moon. When it comes to all kinds of human spaceflight, the messy parts of sending people to space have to be considered in order to achieve a smooth mission. “When the astronauts have to go, we want to allow them to boldly go,” Fuller said.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed An hour ago The tablet didn’t call that play by itself

M
The Verge
Mary Beth GriggsAn hour ago
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.


E
Twitter
Emma RothTwo hours ago
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.


Asian America learns how to hit back

The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate

Esther Wang12:00 PM UTC
E
Twitter
Emma Roth7:16 PM UTC
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.


R
External Link
Russell Brandom7:13 PM UTC
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?


R
Youtube
Richard Lawler6:54 PM UTC
Don’t miss this dive into Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio flick.

Andrew Webster and Charles Pulliam-Moore covered Netflix’s Tudum reveals (yes, it’s going to keep using that brand name) over the weekend as the streamer showed off things that haven’t been canceled yet.

Beyond The Way of the Househusband season two news and timing information about two The Witcher projects, you should make time for this incredible behind-the-scenes video showing the process of making Pinocchio.


R
External Link
Russell Brandom4:29 PM UTC
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.


E
External Link
Emma Roth4:13 PM UTC
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.


A
External Link
Andrew J. Hawkins3:37 PM UTC
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.


J
James Vincent3:17 PM UTC
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.


Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
J
The Verge
James Vincent3:03 PM UTC
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.


E
External Link
Elizabeth Lopatto2:41 PM UTC
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.


R
The Verge
Richard Lawler2:09 PM UTC
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.