16 sunrises, sunsets daily: What you need to know about ISS, UAE astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi's home for next 6 months

How do astronauts live, eat, sleep, rest or even use the toilet and tie a shoelace aboard the International Space Station?

By Angel Tesorero

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Photo: MBR Space Centre/Twitter
Photo: MBR Space Centre/Twitter

Published: Sun 26 Feb 2023, 7:26 PM

Last updated: Sat 4 Mar 2023, 9:03 AM

UAE astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi, the first Arab to go on a long-duration space mission, will spend six months aboard the International Space Station, an orbiting laboratory 400km above Earth.

The ISS orbits Earth at a speed of five miles or 8km per second or 28,000 kilometres per hour, completing one orbit of Earth every 90 minutes or 16 orbits of Earth in 24 hours, equivalent to 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in one day.

From an altitude of 400km, Earth's gravity at ISS is only about 90 per cent of what it is on the planet's surface, creating microgravity (or very small gravity), resulting in an apparent state of weightlessness. And that is what makes the ISS a unique laboratory environment.

AlNeyadi and his crew mates (Nasa mission commander Stephen Bowen, Nasa pilot Warren Hoburg and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev) will study the impact of microgravity and other space effects on many aspects of human lives. Their experiments will improve our knowledge of life and physical sciences, including health and medicine, biotechnology, vaccine development, chemical and physical processes, Earth observation, disaster relief, climate change monitoring, and more.

But before we delve further on their researches that will be used by scientists, engineers and space explorers, let us ask first the more ‘mundane’ questions how astronauts live, eat, sleep, rest and even use the toilet or tie a shoe lace in space.

How big is the ISS?

Launched in November 20, 1998, the ISS measures 357 feet or 108 metres from end-to-end, which is the same size as an American football field. It has a mass of nearly 1 million pounds. Its solar array wingspan (measuring 356 feet, 109 meters) is longer than the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380 (262 feet, 80 meters).

It has six sleeping quarters, two bathrooms, a gym, and a 360-degree view bay window called the Cupola. AlNeyadi said this is one of the things at ISS he is excited about. He shared: “I want to go there with a camera. I want to capture that moment of looking back toward Earth. I want to see everything. I want to see home - the UAE; Al Ain, my hometown. I want to see the places that I visited and liked; where I studied, for example – in the UK and Australia; the oceans, forests, mountains are all on the list - seeing Earth and the magnificent view; that layer of atmosphere that's protecting everything that we know, I think it's a really profound experience.”

How a day starts and what they eat?

While stationed at ISS, astronauts witness 16 sunrises and sunsets daily, but astronauts follow a typical routine like what they do on Earth. Hazza Al Mansouri the first Emirati astronaut to go to the ISS on an eight-day space mission back in September 2019, said his routine started at 6am GMT (or 10am UAE time) when he and crew mates received a daily schedule from ground stations.

He shared, "We then shower and take care of our personal hygiene. Astronaut food is limited to a specific number of calories for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This number is calculated at the ground stations and food is then sent accordingly to the ISS. But there is always spare food.”

Emirati dishes and dates in space

Except for dates, AlNeyadi has yet to share what’s on his menu aboard the ISS, but there will definitely be traditional Emirati cuisines, like during Mansouri’s trip.

Three traditional dishes from the UAE were developed for Mansouri, including madrooba (oatmeal with chicken), saloona (stew), and balaleet (vermicelli egg omelette). The ready-to-eat balaleet and saloona were packed in aluminium cans and madrooba was in a tube.

Mansouri’s also explained how he ate: “Everything floats (in ISS). Breads are packed in packet of beige cubes that I have to eat in one bite. The cutlery was affixed to the table and everything has to be sealed to make sure food doesn’t float around.”

But there is actually an oven and astronauts have been baking cookies aboard the ISS. However, they predominantly consume dehydrated food. They add water or heat and food is ready.

Since AlNeyadi will spend the holy month of Ramadan in Space, he said he will definitely be sharing dates with his ISS crew mates, and this is one thing that was specially requested by his mission commander.

Jiu-jitsu and work out

Astronauts are all physically fit but to mitigate the loss of muscle and bone mass in the human body in microgravity, astronauts do extra physical activities and work out at least two hours a day.

AlNeyadi said he would wear his jiu-jitsu kimono and practice his martial art moves while cruising in space. Keeping his body in top shape is vital to accomplishing his space mission and AlNeyadi, who has been training jiu-jitsu for almost a decade, said it has kept him in top form during his hectic trainings.

Toilet break

The toilet in ISS has several handholds and footholds so that astronauts don’t drift while “relieving” themselves. They use a funnel and hose tightly held against their body (to ensure nothing leaks out) when they urinate while sitting or standing. There is also a toilet seat with a lid (like the one on Earth but smaller) to defecate.

The ISS toilet is a specially designed-vacuum toilet. In an earlier video, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti explained how a fan creates suction to avoid smells and floating waste. Solid waste is stored and put in cargo ferries to burn up when the spacecraft leaves the space station. The astronaut urine is recycled – into drinking water.

And since water is heavy and storage is very limited, one thing that AlNeyadi would probably miss is the toilet bidet or shatafa.

‘Floating’ sleep

Astronauts sleep in special sleep bags secured to their crew quarters. Mansouri shared his experience: “Some astronauts enjoyed sleeping with their bodies attached to a wall in ISS, others slept while floating. As for me, I enjoyed sleeping while floating."

In micro-gravity, you will never know which are upwards or downwards, so astronauts practically sleep facing any direction. Good thing eye masks and earplugs are available to mitigate the noise from air conditioning and other machines.

Tying shoelaces

For Mansouri, tying shoelaces was one of the challenging parts initially. He said: “I told AlNeyadi the trick, and hopefully, he can follow it. I told him, 'don't hold your legs to handrails or try to hold your body to anything. So just let go, float and do it when you are floating.”

Call from space

AlNeyadi and his family cannot make calls immediately because the ISS is orbiting and satellite may be out of range. But they can communicate; they have to inform the mission control to arrange the satellite call. There are internet-enabled laptops on the ISS and astronauts can make voice or video calls with their loved ones.


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