Espresso is one of the most popular beverages around the world, served in millions of homes and businesses, including espresso mobile cafes and coffee vans. For this reason, many people likely can’t imagine going through a day without it. However, that is exactly the situation that astronauts must face: because the low gravity in space causes liquids to float through the air, it is not only dangerous to make espresso and other hot beverages, but also perilous to drink them. As a result, astronauts aboard the International Space Station have never started the day with a good cup of coffee. However, thanks to two new inventions, this could soon change.
In recent months, it was announced that two Italian companies had successfully created an espresso machine that could be used in space, despite the lack of gravity. However, it wasn’t clear how the astronauts would be able to drink the espresso the machine brewed: in space, liquids are sucked from a bag, not the easiest or safest prospect for boiling-hot coffee. Fortunately, researchers from Portland State University in Oregon have since created a vessel they believe would make this possible: shaped like a small, plastic baby boot, the cup’s curves use surface tension and geometry to guide liquid to the drinker’s mouth.
The Portland researchers specialize in spacecraft fluid systems: their previous work has focused on everything from rocket fuel to plumbing concerns, and often means designing devices that require no moving parts. The information gleaned from these older experiments turned out to be useful when it came to developing the cups. But while the image of an astronaut placing their mouth to the cup, forming a capillary connection which creates sippable drops of espresso, is beautiful, the cup may have other implications: currently, the cup costs $500 to 3-D print in space, it may be a simpler and more cost-effective way to test a number of fluidic theories in space. These theories could eventually be used in rocket engines. But there is also the future to think of. Will our descendants be able to order lattes from espresso mobile cafes and drink them on Mars? Will coffee franchises be as profitable in space as they are on earth? Only time will tell.