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Why We Need to Burn Astronaut Pee

There are few headlines I’ve ever written as strange as that, but it turns out it’s immensely important. When we think of NASA scientists, our minds usually form some sort of “mission control” picture in our head — a room full of people making snap decisions for the astronauts out in space. However, it’s not all problems for Houston. The work being done by one team in particular might be the least glamorous but is still vital. It involves burning pee.

The videos of Smarter Every Day — a YouTube channel I cannot recommend enough — are incredibly entertaining and educational. Creator and host Destin explains complex scientific concepts and topics in detailed and easy to understand videos. His latest (above) started with a trip to check out the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device or ARED (the machine astronauts use to “lift weight” in a zero gravity environment) and ended up in the Johnson Space Center where astronaut urine is burned to uncover its chemical makeup.

A micro-gravity environment wreaks havoc on the body over time. Muscle mass and bone density are lost at alarming rates if you don’t workout. Think WALL-E only less cute and far more painful. Resistance training (rubber bands, springs) and machines like the iRED work up to a point, but there was still a general loss of bone minerals over time, which leaves the body through urine.

The ARED is the first system that has resulted in data going the other direction. As Destin explains, it uses levers and a vacuum system for better resistance training. How do they get this data you ask? Why, they burn the astronaut pee! Somewhere in the bowels of Johnson Space Center there’s a team that uses combustion analysis to find out space urine’s chemical composition. The samples from ARED users show stability in bone density over prolonged stays in space, which means one less barrier for our eventual missions to Mars.

If you’re at all curious about fun sciencey things, check out more of the incredible videos on Smarter Every Day and let us know what you think of this one in the comments below!

Image: Smarter Every Day

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