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Here’s what space toilets can teach us about finding signs of alien life

Waste flushed from space shuttle simulates the plumes of icy moons, one scientist suggests

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5:38pm, October 17, 2017
Enceladus

SPACE SPEW  The same process that forces water out of flushed toilets on the space shuttle also applies to the gushing vents on Saturn’s moon Enceladus (shown).

The search for life may get an assist from the call of nature. Astronomers can learn how to study the plumes of subsurface ocean water spewing from icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus from an unlikely source: Space toilets.

Future spacecraft might scoop up samples of Enceladus’ plumes. Figuring out what to expect is tricky: It’s hard to replicate the plumes in Earth-based labs. But astronauts have already done natural experiments in venting water to space, Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University, pointed out October 17 at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Provo, Utah.  

Candid discussions of space waste are scarce in the scientific literature. “It’s very hard to find this stuff written down,” says Lorenz, who is designing future missions to Saturn’s moons. “I don’t know if the human spaceflight community is squeamish about it.”

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