The zero gravity coffee cup

Jul 15, 2013 by Dr. Tony Phillips
The zero gravity coffee cup
Astronaut Cady Coleman performs a Capillary Flow Experiment interior corner flow test.

High above our planet in the realm of satellites and space stations, the familiar rules of Earth do not apply. The midday sky is as black as night. There is no up and no down. Dropped objects do not fall, and hot air does not rise.

Of all the strange things that happen up there, however, it is possible that the strangest happens to coffee.

Physics professor Mark Weislogel of Portland State University has given a lot of thought to coffee (and other ) in space, and he describes what happens:

Auroras Underfoot (signup)"For starters," he says, "it would be a chore just getting the coffee into the cup. Absent the pull of gravity, pouring liquids can be very tricky."

"But, for the sake of argument, let's suppose you are on the space station and you have a cup of coffee in your hand." The most natural thing would be to tip the cup toward your lips, but when you do….

"The coffee would be very hard to control," he continues. "In fact, it probably wouldn't [come out of the cup]. You'd have to shake the cup toward your face and hope that some of the hot liquid breaks loose and floats toward your mouth."

On the bright side, you will probably be wide awake by the time the cup is empty.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Coffee is not the only liquid that misbehaves in space. Cryogenic fuels, thermal coolants, potable water and urine do it, too. The behavior of fluids is one of the most un-intuitive things in all of .

This poses an extreme challenge for engineers designing that use fluids. "Our is all wrong," laments Weislogel. "When it comes to guessing what fluids will do in new systems, we are often in the dark."

To develop a better understanding of fluids in microgravity, Weislogel and colleagues are conducting the Capillary Flow Experiment onboard the International Space Station. For instance, one of the devices in their experiment suite looks at "interior corners." If two meet at a narrow-enough angle, fluids in microgravity naturally flow along the join—no pumping required. This capillary effect could be used to guide all kinds of fluids through spacecraft, from cryogenic fuel to recycled waste water. The phenomenon is difficult to study on Earth, where it is damped by gravity, yet on the space station large scale corner flows are easy to create and observe.

Weislogel and colleagues have already been granted three patents for devices invented as a result of their work. One is for a microgravity condensing heat exchanger. Another describes a device that separates and controls multiphase fluids. The third patent is for—you guessed it— a low-gravity coffee cup.

Astronaut Don Pettit, who worked with the Capillary Flow Experiment during his time on board the ISS, helped invent the cup, and he shares the patent along with Weisogel and two mathematicians, Paul Concus and Robert Finns, who performed the first theoretical analysis of the phenomenon.

Basically, one side of the cup has a sharp interior corner. In the microgravity environment of the space station, capillary forces send fluid flowing along the channel right into the lips of the drinker.

"As you sip, more fluid keeps coming, and you can enjoy your in a weightless environment— clear down to the last drop," says Pettit. "This may well be what future space colonists use when they want to have a celebration." Indeed, the patent application specifically mentions "toasting" as one of the uses of the device.

It's easy to imagine what they might be toasting: toilets and air conditioners and fuel tanks and recycling systems, working better thanks to capillary flow experiments on the ISS.

Explore further: SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Related Stories

How to Manage Floating Fluids in Space

Jul 03, 2007

Six months is a long time to be away from home. But Astronaut Sunita Williams had plenty of work to keep her busy during her stay on the International Space Station, including a group of experiments she dubbed ...

Dancing droplets rock out on space station

May 07, 2012

Expedition 31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit of NASA has taught more than half a million internet viewers how microgravity affects scientific principles by using everyday objects on the International Space Station. In the latest ...

The Marangoni effect: A fluid phenom (w/ Video)

Mar 11, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- What do a wine glass on Earth and an International Space Station experiment have in common? Well, observing the wine glass would be one of few ways to see and understand the experiment being ...

UMD engineers to test boiling at zero-gravity

Feb 25, 2011

Here on Earth, the process of boiling is used for tasks ranging from cooking and heating to power generation. In space exploration, boiling may also be used for power generation and other applications, but ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

Dec 19, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

Dec 19, 2014

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

Dec 19, 2014

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

Dec 19, 2014

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sanescience
not rated yet Jul 15, 2013
No, bag with a straw inside a seal cup with a small leak so that as the drinker drinks the bag collapses and creates a small vacuum inside the cup so when the drinker stops the liquid is pushed back into the cup so it doesn't "dribble" but relatively quickly equalizes so that continued drinking doesn't become too difficult? That would seem to be the obvious way to me...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.