Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will be bringing something special to International Space Station this winter: an espresso maker that functions in microgravity. The mechanics of making this work are not as simple as it seems.
We spent the morning chatting about the psychological impact of getting terrestrial luxuries (like a decent cup of coffee) in space, but actually getting from idea to reality is no simple task. The Italian coffee company LavAzza undertook engineering the ISSpresso after the first Italian in space declared the only thing he missed was a real espresso. They have normal coffee in space, but sometimes the view is just so spectacular, it demands a higher-quality caffeinated beverage.
LavAzza partnered up with Italian space-food supplier Argotec to create the first-ever microgravity capsule brewer, then sidled up to the Italian Space Agency to actually deliver the coffee-maker to the space station. Here's how it functions:
Image credit: LavAzza
The space station is pressurized to match pressure at sea level, keeping the boiling temperature of coffee the same, but it's not okay for stray bits of ground coffee beans or steam to go cavorting off into the rest of the station. To keep the entire rig absolutely contained with no risk for shorting out delicate scientific equipment while someone tries to brew a morning coffee, the machine has been engineered to ridiculously high standards. For example, the plastic steam tube that here on Earth is engineered to withstand 9 bars of pressure has been replaced with a steel tube capable of handling 400 bars of pressure. At that kind of standard, the steam will stay contained during the most catastrophically klutzy bout of pre-coffee chaos.
Image credit: Lavazza
While inspired by the desire for espresso, the machine will be capable of using capsules to make a variety of fancy coffees, and even tea should the need arise. It'll actually be able to deal with all sorts of infusions, so the coffee-maker will even be capable of providing warm, rehydrated soup broth with the right sort of capsule. It functions by plugging a water pack in to the machine, where it is sucked out, aspirated and pressurized, heated to steam, run through the capsule containing coffee grounds or other infusions, and then pumped into the waiting receptacle-pack.
This over-engineering for safety has to balance against the need to make the machine as lightweight as possible, as when it comes to launches, every gram counts. The fully-modified machine with all its safety checks weighs in at 20 kilograms. Between balancing safety, weight, and functionality, it's no wonder that the machine is aesthetically lacking, looking more like laboratory equipment than a producer of a luxury food item.
The most visually noticeable difference is that the coffee will be delivered into sealed packs. Letting stray blobs of coffee drift around the station is just asking for trouble. So, the machine will brew the coffee into a sealed bag with a straw. If astronauts don't want to sip their coffee through a straw, they can try to talk NASA into sending some of the zero-gravity coffee cups into orbit. That's right:it is possible to drink out of a cup in space, it's just complicated.
Tipping a cup up doesn't dump liquid out in microgravity, so astronauts designed a special cup with a sharp interior corner that drives the liquid along one side. Astronaut Don Pettit demonstrates the solution:
Cristoforetti will not only be the barer of a corner coffee shop for the space station, but will also be the first Italian woman in space, and, presumably, will be the first astronaut to drink an espresso in orbit. She and the espresso maker are scheduled to launch late in 2014.