Spacesuits are sometimes called the world’s smallest spacecraft, but they are anything but small for the astronauts wearing them.
MIT Aeronautics researcher Dava Newman has been working for more than a decade on a revolutionary space suit that could change all that.
At last week’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, Newman presented the new space suit, called the Biosuit. The tight-fitting design gives astronauts more mobility while preventing injuries (astronauts have undergone 25 shoulder surgeries due to injuries from current heavy space suits).
One of Newman’s main motivations in building the Biosuit was the fact that women under 5’5″ can’t wear NASA’s current model, the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMUs), because they are not made small enough. This is especially important to Newman herself, who is too short for the suits.
When she was designing the Biosuit, Newman wanted it to be able to fit astronauts of all sizes, so her team tests them on women, which partially accounts for the form-fitting design.
“We make them for females because I’m in charge,” Newman told AllThingsD.
Another issue with the EMU suits currently in use is that they are designed for use in zero gravity environments and are therefore bulky, weighing about 300 pounds. Because space is an empty vacuum — there are very few molecules of gas out there — a space suit not only needs to provide oxygen and protect you from the elements and radiation, but must also apply adequate pressure to prevent human flesh from expanding.
Current suits solve this problem by filling the entire suit with pressurised gas, which essentially turns them into a giant balloon. This solves the issue, but makes them heavy, unwieldy, and tiring to move in, even without having to battle gravity. It also makes it really difficult to use your hands to manipulate small things — a problem when trying to fix your space station.
The Biosuit is a “second skin” comprised off tightly wrapped material that applies stable pressure against the skin to achieve the same effect. Because it’s not as bulky, the Biosuit is far more comfortable to wear and natural to move in.
“You have to apply a third of an atmosphere to keep someone alive in the vacuum of space,” Newman explained to Boston Magazine. “With polymers or stretchy elastic, you can get about 20 per cent there, but we have to get to 30 per cent to make it work.”
Without that 10 per cent, the Biosuit would be unusable. Until a few months ago, it was. Then Newman and her team realised that they could use “active materials” like nickel-titanium alloys to achieve the rest of the pressure they needed. The crisscrossing lines that cover the suit are tension lines made of the active material. The lines “shrinkwrap” the polymers and elastic to the skin, maintaining even pressure throughout. The alloy lines are arranged so that they don’t break when the astronaut bends his or her arms or knees.
Using the active material has enabled the team to successfully pressurize the suit to nearly double their 30% threshold for success.
One of the benefits of the active material design is its durability. Because it is divided into pressurised sections by the active material, an astronaut can quickly fix punctures or tears with a provided “space bandage.” If a puncture occurs in one of the current space suits, there is no fixing it, all the pressurised air can escape, depressurizing the entire suit.
“With a gas-pressurised shell, it’s game over with a puncture,” Newman told Fast CoExist.
One of the main challenges that Newman has yet to solve is the helmet. Her team is currently developing a gas-pressurised helmet that is closer fitting than the globe-shaped helmets on the current EMUs. However, because only the helmet would be gas-pressurised (unlike current EMUs which are completely gas-pressurised), Newman needs to design a new airtight joint between the helmet and the rest of the BioSuit.
Newman suspects that the eventual solution may be a hybrid of the Biosuit and current EMU designs. The idea would be to have the torso and helmet of the suit be gas-pressurised (simplifying the airtight joint) while the arms and legs are outfitted with the Biosuit material for maximum mobility. That design may not be as elegant, Newman admits, but potentially more practical.
Newman’s goal is to have the spacesuit ready for eventual Mars exploration missions. On Mars, using the current EMUs would be tricky as their bulkiness and limited mobility forces astronauts to expend considerable energy doing routine movements, let alone a full day of field work.
Newman estimates that a Mars mission (NASA or otherwise) is likely 20 years off, which should theoretically give her plenty of time. Reaching that deadline, however, may be more difficult than it sounds. Newman hasn’t received NASA funding for the project since 2005.
“Without funding, we are sort of working on this one student at a time,” Newman told Boston Magazine, referring to the help she receives from MIT undergraduates. “We have a pretty extensive plan to get to a flight system for the BioSuit, and, if that were in place and funded, in two years of full-on work, we could be ready.”
Without funding, its anyone’s guess how long it will take to finish.
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