Space Shuttle Flushes the Toilet for All the World To See

by Nancy Atkinson on September 17, 2009

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Shuttle with water dump.  Copyright Clair Perry

Shuttle with water dump. Copyright Clair Perry


This picture is from last week; September 9, 2009 to be exact, but I still wanted to share it. I just got in touch with photographer Clair Perry from Prince Edward Island, Canada to get his permission to post the image. No, this is not a comet. Pictured is space shuttle Discovery executing a water dump. The shuttle needed to get rid of excess waste water before landing the next day, and jettisoned it overboard via the waste water dump line, creating a spectacular visual effect as sunlight hit the spraying water. This dump occurred just as the shuttle was flying over North America last week, and lots of people witnessed this “toilet flush.” Some reports indicated it was “pristine” water (the shuttle fuel cells’ by-product is water) and other reports said it was “waste water and urine” (the Bad Astronomer called it Constellation Urion). Whatever, it was pretty. NASA said this was an unusually large dump, about 150 pounds (68 kg), because new regulations say no shuttle water dumps can take place while docked to the ISS, so as not to contaminate the outdoor experiments on the Kibo lab.

See below for the spectacular entire image, which also includes the nearby ISS creating a streak in the sky. Thanks to Clair Perry for sharing his images.

Shuttle and ISS on 9/9/09.  Copyright Clair-Perry

Shuttle and ISS on 9/9/09. Copyright Clair-Perry


And if you’re worried about the water ice freezing and becoming projectiles in orbit, NASA says that while waste water usually freezes upon jettison into a cloud of tiny ice droplets, when the sun hits, the ice sublimates directly into water vapor and disperses in space.

I remember the first time I saw a shuttle water dump. It was back in 2000, and I had gotten up early, about 4:45 am, to watch the shuttle pass over. But I saw this strange sight, like something was coming off of the shuttle. I ran inside and turned on NASA TV, just in time to see a view of a golden spray shooting out of the shuttle — the sunlight hitting the water at just the right angle made it look like a shimmering gold spray. Gold, not yellow.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

wiseguy September 17, 2009 at 4:20 PM

There is going to be a s**t storm tonight.hahaha.

Space shuttles are really just one giant piece of you know what.

Maxwell September 17, 2009 at 4:44 PM

…I’m wearing a hat from now on.

IVAN3MAN September 17, 2009 at 5:21 PM

That brings new meaning to the term “yellow rain“. ;-)

sfwrtr September 17, 2009 at 6:48 PM

Why is the ISS a streak and the shuttle not? I actually photographed the pair and they were moving in tandem, the shuttle leading. Therefore, they should both be a streak, right?

Dave Finton September 17, 2009 at 7:43 PM

I wonder if anyone envisioned the first man-made comet to be anything like this…

@sfwrtr: Because the ISS jumped to warp right at that instant. =P

Hans September 18, 2009 at 2:27 AM

Both have streaks, but the shuttle is a lot fainter and its streak is partly lost in the water cloud. I think the brightest part of the Shuttle streak is where the water has not spread too far.

Torbjorn Larsson OM September 18, 2009 at 5:04 AM

- Discovery, please be advised, urine for landing. :-D

HelloBozos September 18, 2009 at 5:44 AM

maybe thats how life got on earth, a passing alien cruise ship…8^)

Dark Gnat September 18, 2009 at 6:01 AM

Water, ammonia, organic compounds…who says it’s not a comet? ;)

DrFlimmer September 18, 2009 at 6:32 AM

Constellation Urion? I could watch Apollo 13 again….

TD September 18, 2009 at 11:05 AM

It’s a funny story, but isn’t there still some risk of contaminating the experiments that have to sit in space on the ISS Kibo module porch? There is a paper in the Journal of Electrostatics which suggestes microbes contained in charged ice particles could be lifted to extremely high altitudes by electric fields above thunderstorms. It would be unfortunate to have intentional contamination of the ISS orbit altitude corrupt the work of particle collection experiments, such as the TANPOPO mission, when confirmation of an Arrhenius-type spread of microbial life would be the greatest discovery in the history of science.

Sili September 18, 2009 at 11:28 AM

It’s a pity the STEWART waste treatment thingy on ISS apparently doesn’t have capacity to deal the shuttle orbiter’s waste too. It seems like such a pity to just dump all that ater after getting it all the way up there.

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