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Sunday, July 14, 2024

A Futuristic Space Suit That Gives Astronauts More Mobility

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futuristic space suit

Space exploration needs functional gear to keep astronauts safe, healthy and productive. It also needs to be as attractive as possible.

In 2025, when human beings walk on the lunar surface again, billions of eyes will be on them and their gear. NASA and private companies are working on the next generation of space suits, designed for a variety of tasks and environments.

The BioSuit

MIT Professor Dava Newman, who presented last week at TEDWomen, has worked for 10 years on a form-fitting space suit that could give astronauts much more mobility than the bulky conventional “balloon” suits they wear. Rather than the gas-pressurization that puffs up current spacesuits, Newman’s design uses mechanical counter-pressure to squeeze down on an astronaut’s torso and limbs.

Newman’s catsuit-like garment features coils made of shape memory alloy, which are metals that can be bent or deformed but return to their original shapes when heated. Each of the coils is attached to a length of heating wire, which can be activated with an electric current, causing the coil to cinch down around the wearer’s body and apply pressure where it is needed. Newman says the suit is comfortable enough to work in.

It also can track an astronaut’s movement, which is critical in space because it helps with navigation and spatial orientation. Its sensor technology is built into the fabric using thermal-drawn stretchable sensing fibers that include an inertial measurement unit, an accelerometer and a gyroscope. The suit can also monitor applied pressures and provide real-time information on an astronaut’s movements by interpreting the data it receives through the sensors.

The team is also working to incorporate the system into the suit itself so that it is ready for future applications like space farming, or even to aid an astronaut in a rescue mission on Mars. For example, if the suit detects that the astronaut is floating away from the space station, it can activate several thruster jets on the back of the suit that will help him or her fly back.

The team has a lot of work to do to make the system a reality, including finding ways to keep the coils tight without overheating an astronaut or requiring heavy battery packs, which would limit mobility. But Newman and her colleagues believe they can overcome these challenges and that the BioSuit, which is slated to go into production in three to five years, will allow astronauts to do much more than walk around like the Michelin Man.

The Upper Torso

Designed for Artemis missions to the moon and Mars, this space suit has several layers. Closest to the astronaut’s skin is a cooling garment with a bladder layer that fills with air to create proper pressure, an oxygen-holding rib cage and a ripstop liner. The next layer is a white insulating fabric with three kinds of threads: one for water resistance, another that’s bulletproof and the third that is fire-resistant. The hard upper torso, also a part of the spacesuit’s portable life support system, connects to a flexible lower section that includes spacesuit pants and boots. A piece called the waist closure connects to a metal body-seal, which makes it easier for astronauts to move and rotate their hips. It also helps them walk on the planetary surface instead of doing the bunny-hop of the Apollo spacewalkers.

The Gloves

One of the most important aspects of any space suit is its ability to allow natural and unencumbered movement. This is achieved by having a system that can automatically adjust to the wearer’s movements while maintaining a constant pressure in the space suit. This system works by monitoring the movement of an astronaut, and then adjusting the force required to move the joints in order to compensate. A good example of this is when an astronaut grabs something out of reach, if they try to bend their arm or hand to get it they will need to use a lot more force to make that motion. However, if they rotate their shoulder and arm in order to reach for the object it requires much less energy, because only the rotational forces are needed, not the linear forces on the joint.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey depicted an early version of this, although the suit was much bulkier than the ones used by NASA astronauts. Nonetheless, the design of the suits got quite a few things right. They are designed to be multipurpose, have a large number of structural redundancies, and be durable enough for multiple EVAs.

The sci-fi film Interstellar also carries out some of these features, though its characters wear suits that are more for ground missions, as opposed to the EVA suits they will later wear while trying to blow up an asteroid in deep space. Still, they look a bit more realistic than most cinematic space suits, and have some nice touches like color coding for the different characters.

More recently, movies such as The Martian and Stargate Universe have shown what a more realistic future spacesuit might look like. They have the same basic design as the suits used by astronauts on the ISS, but with some nice upgrades. These include a liquid cooling garment, a pressure garment similar to a bladder, and thermal micrometeroid protection that helps keep the astronaut cool and protected from both solar radiation and tiny meteoroids. They are also made to be highly modular, with parts that can be removed and replaced quickly if necessary.

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