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Pee recycling to get shuttle test

NASA / Monica Soler

A researcher demonstrates a pee-recycling technology based on forward osmosis that will be tested on the space shuttle Atlantis.

During the final days of shuttle Atlantis' final flight, an astronaut will inject a urine-like fluid into a special bag designed to convert the fluid into a drinkable, sugary solution. If it works, future astronauts may use it to make their own pee a safe and satisfying liquid refreshment.

Astronauts on the International Space Station already drink recycled urine but the glitch-y system takes energy from the orbital lab's limited supply. The new system doesn't require electricity; rather it relies on a process called "forward osmosis."

NASA describes forward osmosis as "the natural diffusion of water through a semi-permeable membrane from a solution of a lower concentration to a solution with a higher concentration. The semi-permeable membrane acts as a barrier that allows small molecules such as water to pass through while blocking larger molecules like salts, sugars, starches, proteins, viruses, bacteria and parasites."

The semi-permeable membrane (a bag) is filled with a sugary solution that is nested within an outer bag. The dirty fluid — including pee, sweat and dishwater — is injected into the outer bag. As it makes it way to the inner bag, the contaminants are left behind. The result, if all goes well, is a quaffable liquid.

One of the four astronauts will test the textbook-size recycler toward the end of Atlantis' 12-day mission, scheduled for liftoff on Friday. Fortunately, the test will be with a pee-like solution, not the actual bodily fluid.

The system was demonstrated to reporters at the Kennedy Space Center this week. Wired's Dave Mosher, who was on scene, has the details.

More on peeing and drinking in space:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).