News from Space: NASA’s Future Spacesuit

z-seriessuit1It’s no secret that the human race is poised on a new generation of space exploration and travel. With future missions based on towing asteroids to Earth, building settlements on the Moon, and walking on Mars, NASA and other space agencies are eying their aging hardware and looking for design modifications. From shuttles, to rockets, to capsules, everything is getting an overhaul. And now, NASA is looking to create the next generation of space suits, and is looking to the public’s for help.

They are called the Z-series, a revolutionary new suit that is designed for walking on Mars as well as floating around in space and performing spacewalks. This new series is expected to replace the current aging design, which has been in continuous use on both space flights and aboard the International Space Station since 1982. In addition to updated technology and functionality, the new spacesuit also has an updated look.

NASA_suitThe first design was unveiled back in December of 2012 with the Z-1, which bore a striking resemblance to Buzz Lightyear’s own spacesuit. The new version (the Z-2 series), which has different joint designs and a more durable torso, also comes with a trio of “flashy” cover designs that were made in collaboration with fashion students at Philadelphia University, and were inspired by biomimicry, the evolution of technology, and even – supposedly – street fashion.

z-seriessuit2And unlike the current microgravity suits, the Z-series is designed for walking in extra-terrestrial environments where gravity is the norm (i.e. the Moon and Mars). Intrinsic to the new design is flexibility: it makes it much easier to walk, bend, and pick things up off the surface of a planet or moon. It also goes on quite differently. Whereas the old suit is pulled on like a pair of pants and a shirt, the new version has a handy door built into the back so someone can climb inside.

As Bobby Jones, an engineer for ILC, the company that worked on the new design explained:

There are a lot of fundamental design differences between developing a microgravity suit versus a planetary walking suit. A lot of that has to do with how much mobility is built into the lower torso. With microgravity you’re using your arms to move around and your feet just hang out there. You can dock the suit up to your habitat or vehicle and leave it outside, so you don’t drag dust and other things into your cabin,” Jones explains.

z-seriessuit4As previously noted, anyone can help decide among the three cover designs by casting a vote on NASA’s website. One option, inspired by underwater creatures (and known as the “Biomimicry” suit), employs glowing wires to help the suit stay visible at night. A second version – known as the “Technology” suit – pays homage to past spacesuits and uses light-emitting patches along with wire. The third option, inspired by “Trends in Society”, uses electroluminescent wire and a bright color scheme to mimic the appearance of sportswear and the emerging world of wearable technologies.

NASA says the final design is “reflective of what everyday clothes may look like in the not too distant future,” pulling in elements of sportswear and wearable tech. NASA will move forward with the most popular cover in the public vote, and plans to have the suit ready for testing by the end of the year. And they are hardly alone in looking to create suits that can handle the challenges of future exploration. For example, it’s also worth checking out this MIT professor Dava Newman sleek Mars spacesuit, aka. the “Spiderman Spacesuit”, that is currently in development.

In the meantime, check out this video from Ted Talks where Newman showcases her Spiderman suit. And be sure to head over to the Johnson Space Center’s website and cast your vote for what NASA’s next-generation spacesuit will look like.


Judgement Day Update: DARPA Robotics Challenge!

darpa-robotics-challenge-conceptFor the past two years, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been holding a series of trials where robots are tasked with navigating disaster areas and performing tasks with tools and materials provided. This is known as the Robotics Challenge, which took place from Dec.20th to 21st and was streamed live from Florida’s Homestead Miami Speedway.

And this year, Google’s Schaft humanoid robot took home the top prize after scoring 27 points out of a total of 32 points. IHMC Robotics, based in Florida, grabbed second place, while Carnegie Mellon University’s Team Tartan Rescue placed third. Eight of the top teams that participated in the challenge may receive as much as $1 million in funding from DARPA, ahead of further trials next year with a $2 million prize.

schaft_robotBuilt by a Japanese start-up – one of Google’s many recent acquisitions – the Schaft is an updated version of the Humanoid Robot Project robot (HRP-2), with hardware and software modifications that include more powerful actuators, a walking/stabilization system, and a capacitor instead of a battery. The robot stands 1.48 m (4.8 ft) tall, weighs in at 95 kg (209 lb), and is generally unappealing to the eye.

However, what it lacks in photogenic quality, it makes up for in performance. Over the course of the trials, the bipedal robot was able to bring stable walking and significant torque power to fore as it opened doors, wielded hoses, and cut away part of a wall. However, team Schaft lost points when a gust of wind blew a door out of the robot’s hand and the robot was unable to exit a vehicle after navigated a driving course successfully.

Check out the video of the Schaft in action:

Initially, over 100 teams applied to compete when the challenged was announced in April of last year. After a series of reviews and virtual challenges, the field was narrowed down to 16 competing in four “tracks. On Track A, Schaft was joined by the RoboSimian, the robot recently built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Another primate-like robot was the Tartan Rescue CHIMP, a red headless robot with rollers on its feet.

At the other end of the spectrum was the Johnson Space Center’s Valkyrie, a biped, anthropomorphic robot that honestly looks like something out of anime or Tony Stark’s closet. This latter aspect is due largely to the fact that it has a glowing chest light, though the builders claim that it’s just a bulge to make room in the torso for linear actuators to move the waist.

Valkyrie_robotOfficially designated “R5” by NASA, Val was designed to be a high-powered rescue robot, capable of traversing uneven terrain, climbing ladders, using tools, and even driving. According to the designers, the Valkyrie was designed to be human in form because:

a human form makes sense because we’re humans, and these robots will be doing the jobs that we don’t want to be doing because they’re too dangerous. To that end, Valkyrie has seven degree of freedom arms with actuated wrists and hands, each with three fingers and a thumb. It has a head that can tilt and swivel, a waist that can rotate, and six degree of freedom legs complete with feet equipped with six-axis force-torque sensors.

Unfortunately, the robot failed in its tasks this year, scoring 0 points and placing amongst the last three competitors. I guess NASA has some bugs to work out before this patently badass design can go toe-to-toe with other disaster robots. Or perhaps the anthropomorphic concept is just not up to the task. Only time and further trials will tell. And of course, there’s a video of Val in action too:

The B and C track teams are often difficult to tell apart because they all used Atlas robots. Meanwhile, the D track teams brought several of their own robots to the fore. These included Chiron, a robot that resembles a a metallic sea louse; Mojovation, a distinctly minimalist robot; South Korea’s Kaist, and China’s Intelligent Pioneer.

DARPA says that the point of the competition is to provide a baseline from which to develop robotics for disaster response. Events such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, which not only damaged the reactors but made it impossible for crews to respond in time, demonstrate that robots have a potential role. DARPA believes that robots that could navigate the ruins and work in radioactive environments would have been of great help.

DARPA Robotics Challenge The problem is that current robots simply aren’t up to task. Specialized robots can’t be built to deal with the unpredictable, full telepresence control is neither practical nor desirable, and most robots tend to be a bit on the delicate side. What’s needed is a robot that can work on its own, use tools and vehicles at hand, deal with the unpredictable, and is durable and agile enough to operate in the ruins of a building.

That’s where DARPA Robotics Challenge comes in. Over the next few years, DARPA will use the results of the competition to draw a baseline that will benefit engineers working on the next generation of robots. For now, the top eight of the teams go on with DARPA funding to compete in the Robotics Finals event late next year, for a US $2 million prize.

DARPACourseIf there’s one thing the current challenge demonstrated, its that anthropomorphic designs are not well-suited to the tasks they were given. And ironic outcome, considering that one of the aims of the challenge is to develop robots capable of performing human tasks, but under conditions considered unsafe for humans. As always, the top prize goes to those who can think outside the box!

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Robot Challenge, taken on the second day of the trials.


News from Space: The Orion MPCV gets a Manned Mission

Orion_arraysIt’s known as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and it represents NASA’s plans for a next-generation exploration craft. This plan calls for the Orion to be launched aboard the next-generation Space Launch System, a larger, souped-up version of the Saturn V’s that took the Apollo teams into space and men like Neil Armstrong to the Moon.

The first flight, called Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), will be targeted to send an unpiloted Orion spacecraft to a point more than 70,000 km (40,000 miles) beyond the Moon. This mission will serve as a forerunner to NASA’s new Asteroid Redirect Initiative – a mission to capture an asteroid and tow it closer to Earth – which was recently approved by the Obama Administration.

orion_arrays1But in a recent decision to upgrade the future prospects of the Orion, the EM-1 flight will now serve as an elaborate harbinger to NASA’s likewise enhanced EM-2 mission. This flight would involve sending a crew of astronauts for up close investigation of the small Near Earth Asteroid that would be relocated to the Moon’s vicinity. Until recently, NASA’s plan had been to launch the first crewed Orion atop the 2nd SLS rocket to a high orbit around the moon on the EM-2 mission.

However, the enhanced EM-1 flight would involve launching an unmanned Orion, fully integrated with the SLS, to an orbit near the moon where an asteroid could be moved to as early as 2021. This upgrade would also allow for an exceptionally more vigorous test of all the flight systems for both the Orion and SLS before risking a flight with humans aboard.

orion_arrays2It would also be much more technically challenging, as a slew of additional thruster firings would be conducted to test the engines ability to change orbital parameters, and the Orion would also be outfitted with sensors to collect a wide variety of measurements to evaluate its operation in the harsh space environment. And lastly, the mission’s duration would also be extended from the original 10 to a full 25 days.

Brandi Dean, NASA Johnson Space Center spokeswoman, explained the mission package in a recent interview with Universe Today:

The EM-1 mission with include approximately nine days outbound, three to six days in deep retrograde orbit and nine days back. EM-1 will have a compliment of both operational flight instrumentation and development flight instrumentation. This instrumentation suite gives us the ability to measure many attributes of system functionality and performance, including thermal, stress, displacement, acceleration, pressure and radiation.

The EM-1 flight has many years of planning and development ahead and further revisions prior to the 2017 liftoff are likely. “Final flight test objectives and the exact set of instrumentation required to meet those objectives is currently under development,” explained Dean.

orion_spacecenterThe SLS launcher will be the most powerful and capable rocket ever built by humans – exceeding the liftoff thrust of even the Saturn V, the very rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts into space and put Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the Moon. Since NASA is in a hurry to reprise its role as a leader in space, both the Orion and the SLS are under active and accelerating development by NASA and its industrial partners.

As already stated by NASA spokespeople, the 1st Orion capsule is slated to blast off on the unpiloted EFT-1 test flight in September 2014 atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. This mission will be what is known as a “two orbit” test flight that will take the unmanned Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to an altitude of 5800 km (3,600 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

After the 2021 missions to the Moon, NASA will be looking farther abroad, seeking to mount manned missions to Mars, and maybe beyond…

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of NASA testing out the parachutes on the Orion space vehicle. The event was captured live on Google+ on July 24th from the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, and the following is the highlight of the event – the Orion being dropped from a plane!:

NASA Loses Contact With ISS

International-Space-Station-ISS-580x441It’s something no one hovering hundreds of kilometers over the Earth ever really wants to experience. Yes, when you floating in a tin can, you’re only connection to the surface being a communications relay, it can be pretty scary when it suddenly stops working. Can’t be much of a picnic for those working Mission Control either, or the families forced to sit idly by and wait for others to figure out what went wrong.

The communications blackout began on Tues, Feb. 19th at 9:45 am EST(15:45 UTC) , and lasted until 11:34 am yesterday (17:34 UTC). So for a good twenty-six hours straight, the ISS was unable to communicate with ground crews, which as anyone can guess caused a bit of a stir. Luckily, it turns out everyone on board the ISS was just fine the whole time, no injuries or space invaders to speak of!

According to a statement filed by NASA, communications were apparently lost when flight controllers in Houston were updating the software onboard the station’s flight computers and one of the station’s data relay systems malfunctioned. The primary computer that controls critical station functions defaulted to a backup computer, but was not allowing the station to communicate with NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites.

NASA_ISScrewThen, just before 11:00 a.m. EST, flight controllers were able to communicate with the crew once more as the space station flew over Russian ground stations. They then instructed the crew to connect a backup computer to begin the process of restoring communications. Once that was done, Expedition 34 Commander Kevin Ford reported the following:

“Hey, just FYI, the station is still flying straight, everybody is in good shape, or course, and nothing unexpected except lots of caution and warning [alarms]. All the systems look like they are doing just fine.”

According to the Johnson Space Center’s latest Twitter update, the crew is back at work and the crew is taking questions from fans. Click here to see what the crew had to say about the temporary communications blackout and what’s in store for them now.

In an ironic twist, sources have since indicated that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield Tweeted the following from the ISS shortly before the blackout took place: “Good Morning, Earth! Today we transition the Space Station’s main computers to a new software load. Nothing could possibly go wrong.” The moral here? Things can always go wrong! And don’t tempt fate, especially when you’re hurling through space, hundreds of kilometers above the Earth.



NASA’s Next-Gen Spacesuit

NASA_suitIt’s like something Buzz Lightyear would be seen in, minus the death ray laser. It’s called the Z-1 spacesuit, a prototype that NASA hopes to incorporate into their equipment lineup by 2015. Not only does this new design offer a wide range of advantages compared with the space agency’s previous suit – the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) spacesuit – it also represents the first major overhaul in spacesuit technology since 1998.

For example, it boasts a rear-entry hatch which lets an astronaut put on the suit from the back, as opposed to putting on the top, bottom and helmet separately. This hatch also coincides with a feature known as the suit port, which allows the suit to be attached to the outside of a vehicle (such as a rover), thus allowing the astronaut to simply enter the suit from inside the vehicle. This is a big step from the current space suits which must be stored and put on internally.

I don't see a resemblance, do you?
I don’t see a resemblance, do you?

On top of that, the Z-1 excels in the areas of mobility and visibility. The former arises from the fact that the suit comes as a single piece rather than being made up of multiple segments. The larger, bubble dome helmet is what ensures that the astronauts has a better field of view. And finally, NASA plans to address the issue of life support through the portable PLSS 2.0 which condenses all life support systems into one package and does not need external components.

The PLSS 2.0 design also incorporates a massive bonus in the form of the Spacesuit Water Membrane Evaporator temperature regulator, which would actually make it possible for future astronauts to comfortably walk on extraterrestrial planets. According to NASA’s PLSS engineer Carly Watts, the PLSS 2.0 “can be used in a Martian environment. It can be frozen without damaging the unit, and it’s not particularly sensitive to contamination.” Good news for the astronauts heading to Mars in 2030, assuming the budget environment remains friendly after President Obama is no longer in power.

Check out this video of NASA Public Affairs Officer Brandi Dean talking with Cristina Anchondo, Z1 spacesuit test director, about the Z1 spacesuit at the Johnson Space Center.


The Moon: The Next Hot Vacation Destination?

apollo17Back in 2006, a series of millionaires shelled out a hefty 20 million dollars for a round trip to the International Space Station. At the time, this was considered quite the privilege, seeing as how civilian personnel almost never get to go into space or spend time on the ISS. But as it turns out, this story may be on its way to becoming small potatoes, thanks in part to a new company that has announced plans to mount commercial voyages to the moon by 2020.

Apollo_11_bootprintThe company is called Golden Spike, a company made up largely of former astronauts and personnel who want to use existing and future technology to make private Lunar trips possible. Its current chairman is Gerry Griffin, Apollo flight director and former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The president and CEO is planetary scientist Alan Stern, former head of all NASA science missions.

Given the cost, Golden Spike is mainly focused on offering its services to governments at the moment, much like how Russia has offering its services to governments looking to get to the ISS in the past few years. In that case and this one, these would be nations that would like to participate in space and planetary exploration but can’t afford a program of their own. But of course, should there be private citizens who want to book a ride and can afford it, they are not likely to be turned away!

Alpha Moon Base at
Alpha Moon Base at

Granted, at one time, science fiction writers were predicting that humanity would have bases on the moon by the early 21st century. But those predictions were largely abandoned thanks to the scrapping of the Apollo program and the fact that the ISS was Earth’s only orbiting space station by the turn of the century. And of course, the only way to get there cost private citizens 20 million bucks!

But this announcement, which comes on the heels of several encouraging developments, may have reignited these hopes. First, there was Reaction Engines Ltd’s announcement of the concept for the Skylon hypersonic engine , followed shortly thereafter by Virgin Galactic’s successful deployment of SpaceShipTwo. Given the pace at which aerospace is evolving and progressing, commercial flight to the moon may be coming, though a little later than previously expected.

However, making it affordable remains a daunting task. As it stands, Golden Spike’s own estimates place the cost of a single trip to the Moon at roughly 1.5 billion dollars. Naturally, the company has also indicated that they intend to make the process more affordable so all people can make the trip. No telling how this will be achieved, but if history is any indication, time has a way of making technology cheaper and more commercially viable.

apollo14So… vacation on the moon anyone? Hell, I can envision an entire line of spas, time shares and getaways on the Lunar surface in the not-too-distant future. Sure, it may not be the Mediterranean or the Mayan Riviera, but I can think of plenty of fun activities for people to do, and the novelty factor alone ought to sell tickets. Rover tours, visits to the Apollo landing sites, low-g sports and anti-aging therapies. Oh, and if Alan Shepard and the Apollo 14 mission are any indication, you can even play golf there!

Check out this video of Golden Spike’s proposed tours to the Moon, or learn more about the company by visiting their website.