Spacesuits of the Future

A design of a new type of astronaut suit is currently underway at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dava Newman, Professor of Aeronautics, Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT is leading the “BioSuit” Project. The project is based on ideas developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s by Paul Webb, who was the first to present the concept of a “space activity suit”, and Saul Iberall, who studied lines of non-extension in various objects. The technology and the materials needed for the implementation of Webb and Iberall’s research weren’t available then, but their ideas are helping to build the spacesuits of the future.

Newman, together with her colleague Jeff Hoffman and a team of students is working in collaboration with a local design firm “Trotti and Associates” towards the development of a suit that will enable astronauts to be more mobile and comfortable in space. Newman says that traditional heavy spacesuits “do not afford the mobility and locomotion capability that astronauts need for partial gravity exploration missions. We really must design for greater mobility and enhanced human and robotic capability.”

The spacesuit, named “BioSuit”, consists primarily of spandex and nylon, and is designed to be sleeker than the traditional one. Today’s spacesuits consist of multiple layers, and use gas pressurization technology, where force is applied to the astronaut’s body, in order to protect it from the vacuum in space. The suits have only grown heavier over the past 40 years, and today weigh about 300 pounds. According to Newman, they might be very problematic in future space missions, such as a first human expedition to Mars. The spacesuits severely constrain astronauts’ movements: about 70 to 80 percent of the energy the astronaut exerts goes towards forces applied on the suit itself in order to bend it. The BioSuit, however, relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body, and can provide a higher level of mobility to the astronauts, an important issue in tasks usually performed by them on space missions.

Another crucial advantage to the BioSuit will be its safety. Traditional suits, when only lightly punctured by a tiny meteorite or some other object, put the astronaut in immediate danger, due to possible life threatening decompression. Such a small isolated puncture in the BioSuit could be wrapped like a bandage, without affecting the rest of the suit. Although it differs in many aspects from the spacesuits used today, the finished BioSuit (expected in about 10 years) will possess several elements of the traditional spacesuits like a gas-pressured torso section and helmet.

One of the more challenging parts in the development of the BioSuit is the design of the legs and arms. The scientists created various 3D models in order to simulate human motions and test several wrapping techniques. They are studying the way human skin stretches in motion – while walking, bending, climbing, etc’. Their design focuses on special lines on the suit that are matched against lines of non-extension in the human body. Those are lines on the skin, which do not extend in motion. These lines provide a “skeleton” base for the structured suit, that will not damage the level of mobility. In addition, the BioSuit may embed varying resistance levels, in order to allow the astronauts to exercise in space – an extremely important issue on long journeys where astronauts usually lose up to 40 percent of their muscle strength.

New design technologies for spacesuits are broadly being researched today, and several ideas are studied in order to create more efficient and comfortable suits. In a futuristic research project conducted at IntAct labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts motion-sensitive biological materials are being developed. These materials may be used to coat spacesuits and generate power using external vibrations. Both this research and the BioSuit project are funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. Another new company called Orbital Outfitters is currently developing a spacesuit specifically designed for suborbital tourism. Space travel may not be too far away from us, after all.

More information on the BioSuit can be found here and here.

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