Think cruise ships cultivate viruses well? Well what if everyone was on the same air and water system and there was literally no fresh air? Wouldn’t that be worse?

Right now, the single orbital habitat (International Space Station) uses an advanced sterilization system to clean the air and water to prevent a virus like COVID-19 from spreading. Given 60 years, and lax regulations, you can bet at least a month’s salary that one of the orbital habitats will have turned off those systems to save a little money.

Lets see what that looks like…

The Fun Part

August 4, 2079
Colliers Interstellar Properties
275,000 km above sea level

I’m scared Jeff, I have been hearing about a new…well…something going with around the people at work. They have been fine one day and the next just not at work.Management is saying it is just a bug going around, but this seems bad.

I know you are scared hun, but surely the docs up there have this well in hand. After all you are in one of the highest tech houses around. I mean you all basically can print your own food!

Yea – there are a lot of impressive things up here, but Jeff people are still people. We aren’t exactly known for taking the best care of things. Just yesterday I walked by a water reclamation drain and found it plugged with garbage. And a garbage can was right next to it…people are just kinda shitty.

Fair – but Lily I think you don’t need to worry too much. You will be finished with your three month contract here in about a week and can head back then. I have a great weekend planned for then – everything – Dave and Busters, sushi, the works.

Thanks Jeff – maybe I am overreacting. But…wait….just a second I am getting an alert….shit….Jeff….the station is going into lockdown. We are being told to shelter in place…

What!? Lily! What does that even mean?!?!?! Shelter in place? In your room? In yo…

Jeff…let me finish…Everything is stopped. The station is being isolated. No one in, no one out. Fuck…looks like our weekend is going to have to wait…

Lily – they can’t keep you there – you were told you could leave whenever you wanted if you could pay your way back – right?

I mean yea – but it sounds like all traffic to the station is being stopped and nothing can leave while the medical situation is evaluated. I don’t know what is ne…

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-Colliers Interstellar

The Real Deal

So there are two things at play here. First is that space habitats are, by virtue of their construction closed loop systems, most similar to a cruise ship. Because of that they are vulnerable to anything that can distribute itself through the closed loop life support.

On the other side is the human nature to cut corners whenever something isn’t really salient threat. This means any protective measures taken during the early phase of some new venture will almost certainly be relaxed as time goes on.

But how do current sterilization systems work in orbit now.

ISS Air Scrubber System

The life support system on the space station currently uses a silica gel to remove humidity or water from the air, allowing another piece of hardware to more efficiently scrub carbon dioxide from the air, keeping it from becoming toxic. After a year, that gel loses up to 75 percent of its capacity to absorb water, making it necessary to replace it relatively often. 

Future designs look to convert CO2 scrubbed from the waste air into water; while also more efficiently removing….ahem…the technical term is: “offgassed odors”. While this does include those odors that immediately come to mind, it also include that new car smell of fabrics, the smell of new plastic, and even cooking odors.

A very simple diagram of the current system is below

This system uses heat (750 degree oven) to decontaminate the air, but research into ultraviolet light (UV) based decontamination systems shows they may be more efficient decontamination for future missions.

Ultraviolet Light

Blah blah blah sunlight is bad for you but that is kinda not true. The infrared sunlight heats us up, the visible sunlight lets us see. We say sunlight is bad mainly because of the UV light that comes from it.

Sunlight contains three types of UV. First there is UVA, which makes up the vast majority of the ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. It’s capable of penetrating deep into the skin and is thought to be responsible for up to 80% of skin ageing, from wrinkles to age spots.

Next there’s UVB, which can damage the DNA in our skin, leading to sunburn and eventually skin cancer (recently scientists have discovered that UVA can also do this). Both are reasonably well known, and can be blocked out by most good sun creams.

There is also a third type: UVC. This relatively obscure part of the spectrum consists of a shorter, more energetic wavelength of light. It is particularly good at destroying genetic material – whether in humans or viral particles. Luckily, most of us are unlikely to have ever encountered any. That’s because it’s filtered out by ozone in the atmosphere long before it reaches our fragile skin.

Or that was the case, at least, until scientists discovered that they could harness UVC to kill microorganisms. Since the finding in 1878, artificially produced UVC has become a staple method of sterilisation – one used in hospitals, airplanes, offices, and factories every day. Crucially, it’s also fundamental to the process of sanitising drinking water; some parasites are resistant to chemical disinfectants such as chlorine, so it provides a failsafe.

Though there hasn’t been any research looking at how UVC affects Covid-19 specifically, studies have shown that it can be used against other coronaviruses, such as Sars. The radiation warps the structure of their genetic material and prevents the viral particles from making more copies of themselves.

As a result, a concentrated form of UVC is now on the front line in the fight against Covid-19. In China, whole buses are being lit up by the ghostly blue light each night, while squat, UVC-emitting robots have been cleaning floors in hospitals. Banks have even been using the light to disinfect their money.


So since the water and air on the ISS is pretty darned cleaned, there probably isn’t much of a risk of a virus like COVID-19 spreading through the air/water system of an orbital habitat. But…assuming that future space habitats cut corners…yea…some of those places are going to be like a spring break party for viruses.

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