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Liquids in Space

August 11, 2008 on 12:36 pm | In Physics, Q & A |

My biggest fan in the world, Zrinka from Croatia, wants to know how liquids work in space. After all, most of us are used to water (and other liquids) on Earth, where we know they do two major things:

  1. They take the shape of whatever container they’re put in.
  2. They flow downwards, towards lower elevations and fall towards the center of the Earth.

So they wind up doing very familiar things, like filling up glasses:

But something as simple as a liquid is completely different in space! First off, once you stop accelerating, there’s no external gravity! This causes water, or any liquid, to become a sphere:

There are certainly some neat things you can do to it, but I’d like to tell you how liquids become spheres first. Unlike a gas, the molecular bonds between a material in a liquid state are very strong. The more polar a molecule is (negatively charged on one side and positively charged on the other), the stronger the bonds between the molecules are. Water is an example of a very polar molecule, and that helps explains why it so easily becomes a liquid:

And that also explains the presence of surface tension, or the force that forms an outer surface on the liquid. The same phenomenon that forms a surface to water on Earth causes random water in space to form into spheres. We see this even on Earth, kind of. Take a look at this hi-resolution photo of water emerging from a faucet:

It’s starting to break up into spheres, but they’re deformed on Earth, whereas they aren’t in space. Why? Because there’s gravity and air on Earth. The gravity accelerates the sphere in one direction, and the air provides an uneven drag force on the sphere, causing it to flatten and deform. Here’s an actual photograph of a falling raindrop:

But what if we did this experiment someplace where there was no atmosphere, like on Mercury or the Moon? Would the sphere just fall, perfectly, without deforming? The answer is yes, but there’s one caveat. Because there’s no atmosphere, that means there’s no pressure on the surface of the liquid. There’s still surface tension, sure, but those of you who remember your chemistry will remember that if there’s no pressure on a liquid, it becomes a gas! So any liquid in the vacuum of space will form a sphere, will fall towards whatever gravitational body pulls on it while remaining perfectly spherical, and perfectly undeformed, but the outer layers of it will either freeze (if the temperature is cold enough) or boil (if the pressure is low enough) or both.

Check out the phase diagram if you don’t believe me — you get the pressure low enough, and everything becomes a gas:

Of course, some people have done far more advanced things with water, bubbles, etc. in space than I have the resources to do. But I do have the resources to show you their wonderful video; check it out!



80 Comments »

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  1. Ethan, thanks for posting my question and for your great answer!I hope you had fun writing it as much as i had fun reading it and learning new things..

    Comment by Zrinka — August 12, 2008 #

  2. […] Liquids in Space | Starts With A Bang! […]

    Pingback by The Daily Links - August 12th « The Four Part Land — August 12, 2008 #

  3. cool and fascinating our precious water.

    Comment by jomark osabel — October 13, 2008 #

  4. What about blood?…Is this why astronauts get space sick?

    Comment by George — October 13, 2008 #

  5. […] Inside Dubai’s Labor Camps - [thought-provoking] Seven days that shook the world - [an overview] Liquids in Space (with video) - [science] Kinetic Sculptures of Theo Jansen - [cool art] Emails you get when your company about […]

    Pingback by Sammie's Condensed links for the week - Fearless women, freaky fun - its Hippymom! — October 13, 2008 #

  6. George,

    Fortunately, blood remains inside of our bodies, which give it a definite shape. But lots of funny things happen to you in zero gravity — your internal organs rise inside your stomach, your bone density drops tremendously, and the average human grows two inches. The zero gravity is also why you get space sick; can’t blame water for that one!

    Comment by ethan — October 13, 2008 #

  7. What happens if you have a coca-cola sphere and you drop a mentos into it at zero-G?

    Comment by Nathanael — October 15, 2008 #

  8. […] ¿Cómo se comportan los líquidos en el espacio? […]

    Pingback by Enlaces entre horas » Post Topic » Algo de “ciencia” — November 6, 2008 #

  9. Hi,

    I loved the video about water in space. I teach soldering classes and would like to use it. Can you email me a copy for this purpose? Credits will be given, of course.

    The difference between plagiarism and scholarship is footnotes.

    email to: rcurrell@ludlums.com

    Thanks, Ron

    Comment by Ronald Currell — December 16, 2008 #

  10. Ronald,

    I believe you can just download it from youtube. You can use it, just give the credit to Don Pettit of NASA, whose video this is!

    Ethan

    Comment by ethan — December 16, 2008 #

  11. this is sweet

    Comment by dkslfjs;dlkf — December 31, 2008 #

  12. Thanks, thanks, thank… greetings from istanbul…

    and I think about this; if we made a stabil laboratuary room in space… and we doing fall (spilth) some water to a hall like wash-hand basin (lavabo)… water… which side turn? or is it turn?
    (sorry for my english)

    Comment by ONALTIKIRKALTI — July 10, 2009 #

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    Comment by Sebastian cuence — March 9, 2010 #

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  25. dude wat did u say about the tree thing pisana wat does i i s as y nd z mean wat dude explain me no comprende retardation eso no te cita

    Comment by Sebastian cuence — March 9, 2010 #

  26. oh and how is naty and sebby gonna get in da tree pisana dude ashley and jordan make a goog couple

    Comment by Sebastian cuence — March 9, 2010 #

  27. nat nd sebby in LOVE FOREVER!!!!!!!!!

    Comment by pisana — March 9, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 9, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 9, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 9, 2010 #

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    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 10, 2010 #

  35. by the way i think sevichie is nasty booo

    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 10, 2010 #

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    Comment by edward — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by edward — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by edward — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by edward — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by edward — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by pisana — March 19, 2010 #

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    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 22, 2010 #

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    Comment by sebastian cuence — March 22, 2010 #

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  56. hi my name is samantha and just wanted to say water in space is cool.!~!!

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  69. hi my name is ashley and i just wante to say that i think liquids in space are really really really cool!!!!:)

    Comment by ashley — May 13, 2010 #

  70. me too :)

    Comment by safire — May 13, 2010 #

  71. ;)

    Comment by ashley — May 13, 2010 #

  72. :p

    Comment by ashley — May 13, 2010 #

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    just wanted to make a big shout out to my bro jhon for entroducing me to liquids in space!!!
    my Bro>>>>

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  77. Please help me find answer to following question:

    If water is retained in liquid form (in a closed botte container with air pressure and in 20-30 degree room temprature) will it remain in liquid form in space? If yes, bouancy force will act in which direction? Does bouancy force exist in space?

    Thanks
    Deep

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