Media Releases

How does water behave in space? U of T Engineering researchers aim to solve longstanding mystery

July 15, 2016

Experiment launched aboard SpaceX CSR‑9 mission to International Space Station should deliver answers

Toron­to, ON – U of T Engi­neer­ing researchers are launch­ing an exper­i­ment that aims to solve the long­stand­ing mys­ter of how water behaves in space. Their exper­i­ment will launch at 12:45 am on Mon­day, July 18 aboard SpaceX CRS‑9 from Cape Canaver­al, Flori­da, head­ed for the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion (ISS). There, an astro­naut will run the exper­i­ment and cap­ture pho­tos and video of their glass jar of puri­fied water.

The inia­tive is led by post-doc­tor­al fel­low Aaron Per­sad and Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus Charles Ward of the Depart­ment of Mechan­i­cal & Indus­tri­al Engi­neer­ing.

It may seem like a sim­ple prob­lem, but deter­min­ing the behav­iour of water in space has big impli­ca­tions for design­ing astro­nauts’ life-sup­port sys­tems. On July 16, 2013, a clogged fil­ter caused near­ly 1.5 litres of water to coat the face and hel­met of Ital­ian astro­naut Luca Par­mi­tano dur­ing a space­walk. The water obscured his vision, hear­ing and breath­ing, forc­ing the crew to abort the oper­a­tion and get him to safe­ty.

Ward has been try­ing to solve the mys­tery of water behav­iour in space for almost 20 years. In 1997, he flew the exper­i­ment to the ISS aboard the space shut­tle Colum­bia, but unfor­tu­nate­ly the results were incon­clu­sive.

“We had to make do with the equip­ment and resources we avail­able to us at the time,” says Ward. The video, shot on an 8mm VHS cam­era, was pix­e­lat­ed and blur­ry, which Ward says “left room for doubters to hold on to their doubts.”

In 2008 Per­sad, then a PhD can­di­date super­vised by Ward, redis­cov­ered the jars dur­ing a lab cleanup. Ward urged him to throw them out since they were no longer need­ed, but Per­sad hid them instead. He became fas­ci­nat­ed by the exper­i­ment and start­ed look­ing for a way to run it again with bet­ter equip­ment that would lead to a more con­clu­sive result.

That oppor­tu­ni­ty arrived in 2013 in the form of a NASA-fund­ed project called Sto­ry Time from Space. The project will see astro­nauts on the ISS con­duct and video­tape edu­ca­tion­al demon­stra­tions, cho­sen by vet­er­an Cana­di­an astro­naut Dr. Bjarni Tryg­gva­son, which can be taught and repli­cat­ed in class­rooms around the world. Tryg­gva­son and Ward had a long­stand­ing debate about the out­come from the 1997 exper­i­ment, so Tryg­gva­son invit­ed Ward and Per­sad to fly it again.

Per­sad designed an improved appa­ra­tus for the exper­i­ment, and attached a mod­i­fied GoPro cam­era to cap­ture high-res­o­lu­tion images and video that will prove — or dis­prove — Ward’s the­o­ry once and for all.

The results from the space exper­i­ments could also have use­ful appli­ca­tions on Earth.  “These days, there is grow­ing inter­est in nanoflu­idics, which is all about under­stand­ing the behav­iour of liq­uids in chan­nels 10,000 times thin­ner than a strand of human hair,” says Per­sad. “At such tiny scales, the effect of grav­i­ty is min­i­mal, so the liq­uids behave sim­i­lar­ly to what we see in space.”  As a post-doc­tor­al fel­low in the lab of Pro­fes­sor David Sin­ton (MIE), Per­sad is research­ing nanoflu­idics to improve oil recov­ery process­es. He is already see­ing evi­dence of the dou­ble-inter­face con­fig­u­ra­tion at the nano-scale.

With this launch, the stakes are high for Per­sad — last time the exper­i­ment launched aboard SpaceX’s CRS‑7 mis­sion, the rock­et explod­ed short­ly after lift-off, destroy­ing his work. Despite all the delays and set­backs, Per­sad remains opti­mistic. He believes that the data from the images and videos will be enlight­en­ing to both researchers and stu­dents alike. “After 20 years, it will be great to final­ly have an answer,” he says.


Media con­tact:

Mar­it Mitchell
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions & Media Rela­tions Strate­gist
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Engi­neer­ing
416–978-4498 (desk); 647–228-4358 (cell)