The Future of Space: Smart, Stretchy, Skintight Spacesuits

biosuitSpacesuits have come a long way from their humble origins in the 1960s. But despite decades worth of innovation, the basic design remains the same – large, bulky, and limiting to the wearer’s range of movement. Hence why a number of researchers and scientists are looking to create suits that are snugger, more flexible, and more ergonomic. One such group hails from MIT, with a skin-tight design that’s sure to revolutionize the concept of spacesuits.

The team is led by Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT who previewed her Biosuit – playfully described by some as a “spidersuit” – at the TEDWomen event, held in San Fransisco in December of 2013. Referred to as a “second skin” suit, the design incorporates flexible, lightweight material that is lined with “tiny, muscle-like coils.”

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuitSpeaking of the challenges of spacesuit design, and her team’s new concept for one, Dava Newman had the following to say in an interview with MIT news:

With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space. We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials.

Granted, Newman’s design is the first form-fitting spacesuit concept to see the light of day. Back in the 1960’s, NASA began experimenting with a suit that was modeled on human skin, the result of which was the Space Activity Suit (SAS). Instead of an air-filled envelope, the SAS used a skin-tight rubber leotard that clung to astronaut like spandex, pressing in to protect the wearer from the vacuum of space by means of counter pressure.

SAS_spacesuitFor breathing, the suit had an inflatable bladder on the chest and the astronaut wore a simple helmet with an airtight ring seal to keep in pressure. This setup made for a much lighter, more flexible suit that was mechanically far simpler because the breathing system and a porous skin that removed the need for complex cooling systems. The snag with the SAS was that materials in the days of Apollo were much too primitive to make the design practical.

Little progress was made until Dava Newman and her team from MIT combined modern fabrics, computer modelling, and engineering techniques to produce the Biosuit. Though a far more practical counter-pressure suit than its predecessor, it was still plagued by one major drawback – the skintight apparatus was very difficult to put on. Solutions were proposed, such as a machine that would weave a new suit about the wearer when needed, but these were deemed impractical.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-0The new approach incorporates coils formed out of tightly packed, small-diameter springs made of a shape-memory alloy (SMA) into the suit fabric. Memory alloys are metals that can be bent or deformed, but when heated, return to their original shape. In this case, the nickel-titanium coils are formed into a tourniquet-like cuff that incorporates a length of heating wire. When a current is applied, the coil cinches up to provide the proper counter pressure needed for the Biosuit to work.

Bradley Holschuh, a post-doctorate in Newman’s lab, originally came up with the idea of a coil design. In the past, the big hurdle to second-skin spacesuits was how to get astronauts to squeeze in and out of the pressured, skintight suit. Holschuh’s breakthrough was to deploy shape-memory alloy as a technological end-around. To train the alloy, Holschuh wound raw SMA fiber into extremely tight coils and heated them to 450º C (842º F) to fashion an original or “trained” shape.

mit-shrink-wrap-spacesuit-3 When the coil cooled to room temperature, it could be stretched out, but when heated to 60º C (140º F), it shrank back into its original shape in what the MIT team compared to a self-closing buckle. As spokespersons from MIT explained:

The researchers rigged an array of coils to an elastic cuff, attaching each coil to a small thread linked to the cuff. They then attached leads to the coils’ opposite ends and applied a voltage, generating heat. Between 60 and 160 C, the coils contracted, pulling the attached threads, and tightening the cuff.

In order to maintain it without continually heating the coils, however, the team needs to come up with some sort of a catch that will lock the coils in place rather than relying on a continuous supply of electricity and needlessly heating up the suit – yet it will still have to be easy to unfasten. Once Newman and her team find a solution to this problem, their suit could find other applications here on Earth.

Image converted using ifftoanyAs Holschuh explained, the applications for this technology go beyond the spacesuit, with applications ranging from the militarized to the medical. But for the moment, the intended purpose is keeping astronauts safe and comfortable:

You could [also] use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield. If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it… An integrated suit is exciting to think about to enhance human performance. We’re trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space.

Considering the ambitious plans NASA and other government and private space agencies have for the near-future – exploring Mars, mining asteroids, building a settlement on the Moon, etc. – a next-generation spacesuit would certainly come in handy. With new launch systems and space capsules being introduced for just this purpose, it only makes sense that the most basic pieces of equipment get a refit as well.

And be sure to check out this video of Dava Newman showing her Biosuit at the TEDWomen conference last year:


News From Space: Luna Rings and Spidersuits!

space_cameraSpace is becoming a very interesting place, thanks to numerous innovations that are looking ahead to the next great leap in exploration. With the Moon and Mars firmly fixed as the intended targets for future manned missions, everything from proposed settlements and construction projects are being plotted, and the requisite tools are being fashioned.

For instance, the Shimizu Corporation (the designers of the Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid), a Japanese construction firm, has proposed a radical idea for bringing solar energy to the world. Taking the concept of space-based solar power a step further, Shimizu has proposed the creation of a “Luna Ring” – an array of solar cells around the Moon’s 11000 km (6800 mile) equator to harvest solar energy and beam it back to Earth.

lunaringThe plan involves using materials derived from lunar soil itself, and then using them to build an array that will measure some 400 km (250 miles) thick. Since the Moon’s equator receives a steady amount of exposure to the Sun, the photovoltaic ring would be able to generate a continuous amount of electricity, which it would then beam down to Earth from the near side of the Moon.

It’s an ambitious idea that calls for assembling machinery transported from Earth and using tele-operated robots to do the actual construction on the Moon’s surface, once it all arrives. The project would involve multiple phases, to be spread out over a period of about thirty years, and which relies on multiple strategies to make it happen.

lunaring-1For example, the firm claims that water – a necessary prerequisite for construction – could be produced by reducing lunar soil with hydrogen imported from Earth. The company also proposes extracting local regolith to fashion “lunar concrete”, and utilizing solar-heat treatment processes to fashion it into bricks, ceramics, and glass fibers.

The remotely-controlled robots would also be responsible for other construction tasks, such as excavating the surrounding landscape, leveling the ground, laying out solar panel-studded concrete, and laying embedded cables that would run from the ring to a series of transmission stations located on the Earth-facing side of the Moon.

space-based-solarpowerPower could be beamed to the Earth through microwave power transmission antennas, about 20 m (65 ft) in diameter, and a series of high density lasers, both of which would be guided by radio beacons. Microwave power receiving antennas on Earth, located offshore or in areas with little cloud cover, could convert the received microwave power into DC electricity and send it to where it was needed.

The company claims that it’s system could beam up to 13,000 terawatts of power around-the-clock, which is roughly two-thirds of what is used by the world on average per year. With such an array looming in space, and a few satellites circling the planet to pick up the slack, Earth’s energy needs could be met for the foreseable future, and all without a single drop of oil or brick of coal.

The proposed timeline has actual construction beginning as soon as 2035.

biosuitAnd naturally, when manned missions are again mounted into space, the crews will need the proper equipment to live, thrive and survive. And since much of the space suit technology is several decades old, space agencies and private companies are partnering to find new and innovative gear with which to equip the men and women who will brave the dangers of space and planetary exploration.

Consider the Biosuit, which is a prime example of a next-generation technology designed to tackle the challenges of manned missions to Mars. Created by Dava Newman, an MIT aerospace engineering professor, this Spiderman-like suit is a sleeker, lighter alternative to the standard EVA suits that weigh approximately 135 kilograms (300 pounds).

biosuit_dava_newmanFor over a decade now, Newman has been working on a suit that is specifically designed for Mars exploration. At this year’s TEDWomen event in San Francisco, she showcased her concept and demonstrated how its ergonomic design will allow astronauts to explore the difficult terrain of the Red Planet without tripping over the bulk they carry with the current EVA suits.

The reason the suit is sleek is because it’s pressurized close to the skin, which is possible thanks to tension lines in the suit. These are coincidentally what give it it’s Spiderman-like appearance, contributing to its aesthetic appeal as well. These lines are specifically designed to flex as the astronauts ends their arms or knees, thus replacing hard panels with soft, tensile fabric.

biosuit1Active materials, such as nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys, allow the nylon and spandex suit to be shrink-wrapped around the skin even tighter. This is especially important, in that it gets closer Newman to her goal of designing a suit that can contain 30% of the atmosphere’s pressure – the level necessary to keep someone alive in space.

Another benefit of the BioSuit is its resiliency. If it gets punctured, an astronaut can fix it with a new type of space-grade Ace Bandage. And perhaps most importantly, traditional suits can only be fitted to people 5′ 5″ and taller, essentially eliminating short women and men from the astronaut program. The BioSuit, on the other hand, can be built for smaller people, making things more inclusive in the future.

Mars_simulationNewman is designing the suit for space, but she also has some Earth-bound uses in mind . Thanks to evidence that showcases the benefits of compression to the muscles and cardiovascular system, the technology behind the Biosuit could be used to increase athletic performance or even help boost mobility for people with cerebral palsy. As Newman herself put it:

We’ll probably send a dozen or so people to Mars in my lifetime. I hope I see it. But imagine if we could help kids with CP just move around a little bit better.

With proper funding, Newman believes she could complete the suit design in two to three years. It would be a boon to NASA, as it appears to be significantly cheaper to make than traditional spacesuits. Funding isn’t in place yet, but Newman still hopeful that the BioSuit will be ready for the first human mission to Mars, which are slated for sometime in 2030.

In the meantime, enjoy this video of the TEDWomen talk featuring Newman and her Biosuit demonstration:

Sources: gizmag, fastcoexist, blog.ted