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  • Mars Date/Time:  Year 1, Sur One, Sol 18 (1.1.18)  8:07 PM NST
  • Earth Date/Time:  21 January 2016  2:00 PM PST

One problem that was never been solved in all our decades in space is doing the laundry. The astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) never washed their clothes. They wore them as long as they could stand and then they put the dirty clothing on the Russian Progress vehicle that brought supplies to the station. Then the Progress vehicle would undock and burn up in the atmosphere in a planned return designed to destroy the craft.

On the International Space Station the laundry challenge was solved by not doing any

On the International Space Station the laundry challenge was solved by not doing any

That works when you’re in 400 km in orbit above Earth and you have a resupply ship coming every few weeks. It doesn’t work millions of miles away from Earth, you have 28 astronauts on board, and all of them will be on the mission for a minimum of 21 months.

To go to Mars we had to solve the problem and we did by rethinking the cleaning process. Solving the gravity issue has helped because even a little gravity keeps water from free-floating; however, the real solution was making laundry a continuous process that washes one item at a time.

Our space washing machines are not what you will find in your home. Our Attire Washing Systems (AWS) are high-efficiency machines that are designed to save energy, time, and save and recycle water.

The difference is that the AWS is more like a conveyor process where each clothing item is processed one piece at a time. Only this conveyor is circular and wraps around itself in an enclosed system that clothes enter, are processed, then come out dry and clean. 

Cloth fed into the center of the machine is infused with the cleaning solution as it goes up and over the top of the entry point. Near the top the cloth is pressed to push out dirt and the cleaning solutions. As the cloth come down it is rinsed. At the bottom of the cycle the cloth is then pressed again to push out as much water as possible. As the cloth rises up and over the washing cycle it is travels through a chamber that briefly exposes it to a micro-vacuum environment that sucks out most of the remaining water. On the way back down it is exposed to dry heated air that finishes the process and is expelled into a basket for the astronaut to collect.

It takes about four minutes to load a week’s worth of personal laundry. Once the clothing, sheets, and/or towels are fed into the AWS, the first item comes out in three and a half minutes, and in a little over ten minutes the astronauts laundry is done.

The ultimate test for the AWS will be the fine grit of Mars; however, our rover missions have given our engineers good information on what to expect once humans are on the planet. Fortunately, most of the dust will be on the suits, not inside them.