Unexpectedly Intriguing!
March 6, 2020

Space. The final frontier. It can be a dangerous place, but it's even more so if you're less than alert.

That's why astronauts drink coffee. Lots of it. And in zero gravity, that's not easy.

Thanks to the theoretical contributions of physicist Mark Weislogel with mathematicians Paul Concus and Robert Finns, along with in-flight experimentation by mission specialist Don Pettit during a 2008 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station, today's astronauts can sustain their level of alertness a lot easier by exploiting how fluids behave in a weightless environment because of their invention of a zero-g coffee cup, as demonstrated in the following less-than-three minutes long video:

After returning to Earth, they filed a patent and were eventually awarded U.S. Patent 8,074,827 in 2011 for their "Beverage Cup For Use In Spacecraft Or Weightless Environments". Here's a description of how it works:

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 coffee 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.

But the spirit of invention didn't stop there! In 2016, Pettit and Weislogel teamed with Andrew Wollman and Ryan Jenson to patent an improved version of the zero-g coffee cup and were issued U.S. Patent 9,962,024 for a "Capillary Beverage Cup".

The newer invention improves the original design by enhancing the user interface for coffee-loving astronauts and addressing a problem that is frequently encountered by those drinking liquids in space, as described in the patent's abstract:

The capillary beverage cup provides a continuous capillary force on the liquid contained by the cup, allowing for complete withdrawal of fluid from the cup in low or near zero gravity environments, while enabling the cup to have an open top, allowing for aromatics to be experienced by a user while drinking with reduced concerns of spilling or release free-floating spheres of liquid in the low-gravity environment.

You can read more about the improved space coffee cups in the article "Space Station Espresso Cups: Strong Coffee Yields Stronger Science", where prototypes of the subsequently patented cups were flown in 2015 on the International Space Station. The following three-minute, 22-second video on how to drink coffee in space shows the new cup design being put to use with the ISS' new espresso machine:

The next time you're in space, you can take comfort in knowing your coffee consumption can continue almost as if you were on Earth because of these pioneering innovations.

From the Inventions in Everything Archives

This is the third episode of the 2020 series for Inventions in Everything. Here are the previous two installments:

Here are articles from earlier series that are somehow related to this episode:


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