The old joke about exchanging underwear with the armed forces (“Müller swaps with Maier, Huber swaps …”) is true for astronauts on the International Space Station. There they have to share some clothes – without a washing machine. In a project funded by the European Space Agency, Austrian researchers are now looking at how microbes can help keep underwear clean in space.
There is no traditional shower or washing machine on the ISS. Astronauts wash themselves with wet wipes and special shampoo, clothes are worn longer than those on the ground, and used laundry is discarded. Astronauts have to share more complex items of clothing such as spacesuits and associated equipment without washing them in between. This also includes the so-called “liquid cooling and ventilation clothing” (LCVG).
According to the European Space Agency ESA, the LCVG is worn under a spacesuit directly on the skin while walking in space. It contains gas cooling and ventilation hoses to keep the astronauts at a comfortable temperature during the heavy physical work in space and should be shared with colleagues. “Underwear sharing” is likely to increase with longer missions, such as a space station in lunar orbit.
Microbes are supposed to keep clothes clean
Currently, antimicrobial materials such as silver or copper are widely used. Reduces the reproduction of microorganisms in clothes that can be worn for a longer time. “The problem is that long-term use can cause skin irritation,” explains Seda Ozdemir Fritz of the Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF). This is why it applied for a new idea as part of the European Space Agency’s Open Space Innovation Platform and recently won a bid for a two-year research project.
Together with the start-up Vienna Textile Lab, ÖWF wants to try the “Advanced Biocide Painting Technology to Reduce Microbial Activity” (BACTeRMA) project to use microorganisms to keep clothes clean and fresh for longer. The metabolic products with antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal properties of bacteria are supposed to make them more resistant to unwanted small creatures.