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Space Cups Enable Espresso
December 2, 2015

Sometimes the little things in life can make all the difference — and when you are in orbit above the planet Earth, like the crew aboard the International Space Station, this is especially true. Did you know that astronauts are accustomed to drinking beverages from bags due to safety concerns over spillage?

This space cup operates via siphon action. Photo courtesy of Weislogel.

So it is fairly easy to imagine how six funky-looking cups crafted from a 3-D printed transparent polymer are making spending time in space a more enjoyable experience.

Last year, it was big news when Italy sent an espresso machine up to the Space Station for Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian European Space Agency astronaut. This sop to convenience, of course, inspired a team of researchers to study the related strange fluids phenomena in low gravity — such as espresso crema formation and settling, capillary interfaces, and containment of potentially hazardous drinks within a spacecraft.

To do this, the researchers designed a cup that exploits surface tension as opposed to gravity and, during the American Physical Society’s 68th Annual Meeting of the Division of Fluid Dynamics, they presented their findings about how it’s working out aboard the Space Station.

The presentation, “Drinking in Space: The Capillary Beverage Experiment,” was authored by Andrew Wollman, Mark Weislogel, Ryan Jenson, John Graf, Donald Pettit, Scott Kelly, Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui.

The cup works so well that the crew is able to cruise around, do flips, and even toss them back and forth — while drinking beverages such as fruit juice, fruit smoothies and coffee.

“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, one of the research team members who is also a senior scientist for IRPI LLC, an Oregon-based R&D and consulting firm specializing in fluid-thermal engineering, as well as a professor of mechanical engineering at Portland State University.

Of the six cups currently aboard the Space Station, five hold 150mL, while the sixth is a 60mL demitasse specifically intended for espresso. The cups are complexly shaped and demonstrate that specific control of liquids can be maintained in low-gravity environments — but with completely different fluidics principles at play than on Earth.

“We’re enjoying watching the astronauts have fun, but also collecting plenty of data on large capillary interface configurations, stability, flow rates, transients, etc.,” said Weislogel. “We’ve received great support for this project from U.S. astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren, and Japanese astronaut Kumiya Liu.”

Since this is a microgravity fluids experiment, if the team “is able to design spacecraft fluids systems with the same confidence as for a terrestrial system, we’ll be in a great position to succeed in more complex missions in space with greater performance and security,” Weislogel noted.

The next step in the process for the team is to apply their knowledge of low-gravity capillary fluidics phenomena to design more reliable life-support systems for the Space Station and future spacecraft.

This article reprinted from materials provided by American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics.

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