News for Nerds - How Urine Gets Us to Mars

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 4/18/2014 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - How Urine Gets Us to Mars

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week I'll explain what it means to be 'hangry', I'll show you a snowboarder powered by jet thrusters, and I'll explore the mystery of a cherry tree from space that's got scientists baffled. But first, here are your headlines.

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At this point it seems unavoidable: if we're going to make it to Mars, we're going to have to start drinking our own pee.

Maybe I should take a step back. Let me try again: NASA scientists have developed a new filtration system that allows astronauts to recycle their urine, turning it into potable drinking water while also using it to generate electricity.

This might sound like a novelty, but it's actually pretty crucial. On a long journey to Mars, keeping enough fresh water for astronauts to survive would take up 80 to 90 percent of the mass of the spaceship. And not only that, but at a cost of $10,000 per pound, transporting that much water would be far too expensive and wasteful, even for the federal government.

There is currently a filtration system on the International Space Station, and it works pretty well, reclaiming 93 percent of the water on board. But this new system holds the additional promise of generating electricity, which could be a game-changer. What's more, there are plenty of applications for a device like this right here on Earth (think of the millions of people in Africa without access to clean water).

The system is not ready yet, but when it is, look out. Mars, here we come.

- story from ScienceNews, photo from NASA/USGS via Wikimedia Commons

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And speaking of long-distance travel, I'd now like to quote every stand-up comedian from the 1980s: "What's the deal with airline food?"

Yes, airline food is pretty bad. But as it turns out, the fault lies less with the airlines themselves and more with your own tastebuds. New research shows that, as one executive chef puts it, "At 35,000 feet, the first thing that goes is your sense of taste."

Tests from a German research organization have indeed revealed that the cabin atmosphere, along with the dry cabin air, "makes your tastebuds go numb, almost as if you had a cold." The decreased humidity dries out your nose and dulls your olfactory senses, resulting in a 30 percent decrease in perception of saltiness and sweetness.

And separate research has shown that the noise in an aircraft cabin can also affect your palate, impairing your sense of taste and, weirdly, increasing crunchiness.

So when it comes to in-flight meals, go easy on the airlines. It's not really their fault. As for the tiny seats, long delays, and baggage fees... well, that's a different story.

- story from The Daily Mail (UK), photo from Protoplasma Kid via Wikimedia Commons

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Here are a few other cool science stories you may enjoy:

  • When we get hungry, we tend to get angry. There's even a term for it -- hangry. So a group of scientists started wondering about how low blood-sugar causes spouses to behave toward one another. Their experiments involved loving couples, voodoo dolls, and a whole lotta hangry, and it's definitely worth a read.
  • Astronomers have discovered the most Earth-like planet we've ever seen. It is similar in size and temperature to our own planet, and it exists in the habitable 'Goldilocks' zone. Experts call it more of an 'Earth cousin' than an 'Earth twin', but this sort of stuff excites me. It should excite you, too.
  • Here's an amazing story. The seed from a cherry tree orbited Earth aboard the ISS for eight months in 2008-9, and when it returned to Earth, Japanese scientists planted it. A few weeks ago, that cherry tree blossomed -- a full six years early. Woah.
  • And finally, in the name of science, I give you this video of a jet-powered snowboarder:

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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