Sunday, May 10, 2015

To Boldly Brew Coffee Where No Man Has Brewed Before

Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti sips first espresso in space. Image credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/Twitter

There’s nothing like the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Space Station astronauts would agree as now they can smell that aroma and try a tasteful espresso while orbiting high above. Thanks to the ISSpresso machine shipped to the International Space Station (ISS), on Sunday May 3, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti proudly sipped the first espresso in space. "Coffee: the finest organic suspension ever devised. Fresh espresso in the new Zero-G cup! To boldly brew...” she tweeted, wearing her Star Trek uniform.

ISSpresso is the product of a project run by Argotec, the Italian engineering company that specializes in the design of aerospace systems and in the preparation of foods for in-space consumption, and Lavazza, the historic Italian coffee brand. The Italian Space Agency (ASI) partnered with the companies to support the project.

It is the first capsule-based espresso system able to work in the extreme conditions of space, where the principles that regulate the fluid dynamics of liquids and mixtures are very different from those typical on Earth.

Samantha Cristoforetti waits next to the newly installed ISSpresso machine. The espresso device allows crews to make tea, coffee, broth, or other hot beverages they might enjoy. Image credit: NASA
Samantha Cristoforetti waits next to the newly installed ISSpresso machine. The espresso device allows crews to make tea, coffee, broth, or other hot beverages they might enjoy. Image credit: NASA

The espresso machine installed by Cristoforetti that uses the same Lavazza coffee capsules as those found on Earth, has been designed and built to deliver the same quality as an authentic Italian espresso coffee in terms of cream, body, aroma and temperature. The drink was produced in microgravity conditions and respects all the characteristics of Italian espresso coffee. Once the coffee has been ‘poured’, a patented new system cleans the final section of the hydraulic circuit and at the same time generates a small pressure difference inside the special pouch used as a space “espresso cup”, so that when the straw is inserted, all the aroma of the coffee is released.

“With the successful conclusion of today’s experiment, we have completed the challenge we set ourselves almost a year ago when we presented the project, not only overcoming the limits of weightlessness and allowing the astronauts on board the International Space Station to drink excellent espresso coffee, that undisputed symbol of Italian made products, but also improving our knowledge about fluid dynamics”, said Argotec Managing Director David Avino.

ISSpresso is so complex that it weighs about 25 kg, because all the critical components are redundant for reasons of safety, as required by the specifications agreed with ASI.

Astronauts can use the espresso machine to brew coffee, tea, broth and other hot beverages. Lessons learned from the machine could help improve brewing methods in the future.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly enjoys his first drink from the new ISSpresso machine. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly enjoys his first drink from the new ISSpresso machine. Image credit: NASA

“The experiment represents an advanced engineering project,” said ASI President Roberto Battiston. “The result of a partnership between the public and private sectors which has produced innovative solutions that will not only have immediate psychological benefits for astronauts, but also generate an important economic return for Italian industry in the sector, promote its image and establish an advanced technology positioning for future space missions.”

Astronauts usually drink from bags with straws so that they can completely collapse the bag to assure the liquids come out. Without gravity, liquid can easily float out of normal drink containers. From a practical safety perspective, the bags also provide a level of containment. NASA team led by Mark Weislogel of Portland State University designed special plastic cups made to sip espresso in space. 

“We designed the Space Cup with the central objective of delivering the liquid passively to the lip of the cup. To do this we exploit surface tension, wetting conditions, and the special geometry of the cup itself,” Weislogel said.

Scientists say a notch on the rim of the cup allows astronauts to taste and smell the coffee as they would on Earth.

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. Image credit: M. Meyer, IRPI
The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. Image credit: M. Meyer, IRPI

“Touching your lips to the rim of the cup establishes a capillary connection, almost like the wicking of water through a paper towel, allowing the drinker access to the entire contents,” Weislogel revealed.

He also noted that with this special cup, scientists can study other complex fluids as well. “Adding sugar or milk to tea is expected to radically change the performance of the process of how the fluids move. We’ll approach this systematically aboard the space station. We’re starting off with water, then clear juice, then tea, tea with sugar, etc., including complex drinks like cocoa, a chocolate breakfast drink, and even a peach-mango smoothie,” he said.

Weislogel’s current efforts are directed to research, development, and delivery of advanced fluid systems for spacecraft.

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