One reason we love science so much is that it indulges our innate sense of curiosity. Scientists and science cats alike want to know what happens when you look through a telescope or smash atoms together or try various ordinary activities in space.
But this is when the weirdness starts. This is an animated gif of astronaut Chris Hadfield showing us earthlings what it looks like to cry in space. This week we get to see what happens when you wring out a wet towel in space.
Two high school students wanted to know what happens when you wring out a washcloth in space. According to a news release from the Canadian Space Agency, Nova Scotia high school students Kendra Lemke and Meredith Faulkner designed a simple science experiment for Commander Hadfield to attempt while residing on the International Space Station.
The Canadian students were invited to submit science experiments that only used items that were included on a list provided by the Canadian Space Agency of supplies on board the ISS. Bungee cords, binder clips, velcro straps, velcro patches, scotch tape and duct tape were included among the items available to Commander Hadfield for the experiment.
In this amazing video, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrated out what happens. Their experiment, called “Ring it out,” examined the impacts of weightlessness on the behavior of water after being squeezed out of a water-soaked washcloth. Lemke, Faulkner and their science teacher hypothesized that the water would not drip off the washcloth due to microgravity.
Water, in space, will not flow. It will not cascade, or drip, or fill a cup. Instead, unimpeded by gravity, water tends to collect in floating blobs that are works of beauty and science at the same time. The water doesn’t go anywhere because of the surface tension of the water. Commander Hadfield said it’s like “you had Jell-O on your hands.” When Hadfield wrings out the washcloth, some of the water hovers, halo-like, around the washcloth like a force field, while the rest of the water travels up his arm, much a like a malevolent space parasite might as it prepares to eat your astronaut brain.
We know the water won’t fall to the floor. That’s what would happen on Earth, thanks to the pull of our planet’s gravity. But he’s not on the Earth. He’s in orbit around Earth. So where will the water go?
If you know a little bit about science, you could make a prediction and maybe win a bet over a treat. We know that each water molecule is made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to oxygen atom. It so happens that the different molecules stick to each other with something called hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen atoms of one molecule are attracted to the oxygen atoms of their neighbors—think of it as coveting thy neighbor’s oxygen. That stickiness leads to something called surface tension, which you can read more about here.
And so water in space does not just float away. It forms those very cool Jell-O-like blobs around Commander Hadfield’s hands. Now I’d like to see what happens when he adds soap. I’d be willing to bet it would look different.
He starts with a compressed puck of official NASA-issue washcloth. After shaking it out, he soaks it with drinking water squirted out from a flexible plastic bottle.
Once the cloth has absorbed all it can, we get the moment of truth. Tiny blobs of water float out free into the ISS, but most of it just gathers in a liquid tube around the cloth and Hadfield’s fingers. Space! Science! Astronauts! It’s the best kind of viral video hit. Now, we are convinced that all that money spent on space exploration was worth it! Telling me that Tang and disposable diapers were the result of space travel just didn’t do it!