12/05/2011 06:30 pm ET

Space Laundry: NASA Commissions UMPQUA For Space-Safe Washing Machine For Astronauts' Laundry

Laundry might not be the first concern for astronauts, but clothes do get dirty, even in space.

For this reason, scientists at NASA have tapped UMPQUA Research Company, a firm based in Oregon, to build a washer and dryer capable of working in zero-gravity, Wired UK reports.

Currently, astronauts at the International Space Station wear their underwear for several days before disposing of the dirty laundry in a capsule that burns up in the atmosphere, according to the Daily Mail. They wear other clothes for months until a fresh delivery is made from Earth to the station.

But as manned space missions venture beyond the moon -- such as on a trip to Mars -- the delivery of clean clothes every few months will no longer be possible, explains.

A prototype has already been tested on a "microgravity simulation flight," but more tweaks are needed.

InnovationNewsDaily explains how the prototype works:

"We developed a system of water jets inside a plastic bag with clothes and water and no air," [William Michalek, project manager at UMPQUA,] told InnovationNewsDaily. "The jets would bend the clothes back and forth to work the soap solution through all the fibers."

The water only enters the plastic bag through connected tubes after all the air has been sucked out first. Once cleaning is done, the clothes stay in the bag within a larger chamber as a microwave generator irradiates them -- similar to heating up a microwave meal inside a Tupperware container.

Finally, a tumble cycle uses air jets to make any space laundry extra soft. The design conveniently saves astronauts time they might normally spend switching wet clothes from a washer to a separate dryer.

The company hopes to incorporate the use of water vapor into the new machine, but Michalek said Earthlings shouldn't expect a household machine similar to the space appliance any time soon.

The product will be available "when we get to the point where we're wearing dirty clothes because we don't have enough water to wash them," he told InnovationNewsDaily.