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:


The Future is Here: The Holodeck Video Trainer

VIPE1A current obsession of military planners is keeping up with the latest in battlefield challenges while also dealing with troop reductions and tightened budgets. Video games are one solution, providing soldiers with  training that does not involve real munitions or loss of equipment. Unfortunately, most of these games do not provide a real-world immersive feel, coming as close to the real thing as possible while still being safe.

Hence why the the Army Contracting Command enlisted the help of Northrop Grumman this past January to integrate their Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) “Holodeck” into the US Army’s training program. Much like the CAVE2, a VR platform created by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois, this latest holodeck is a step towards fully-realized VR environments.

VIPE_HolodeckUsing commercial, off-the-shelf hardware combined with gaming technology, the VIPE Holodeck virtual training system provides users with a 360 degree, high-fidelity immersive environment with a variety of mission-centric applications. It can support live, virtual and constructive simulation and training exercises including team training, cultural and language training and support for ground, air and remote platform training.

Last year, the VIPE Holodeck took first place in the Federal Virtual Challenge – an annual competition led by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Simulation and Training Technology Center – for the system’s Kinect integration navigation sensor, which gives users the ability to crawl, walk, run, stop, jump, and move side to side in the virtual environment.

?????????????????????????????????According to Northrop, the VIPE Holodeck moves ahead of other virtual simulators thanks to its advanced situational training, where service members can walk through an area in the replicated virtual environment and prepare for what they may encounter in real life. This works not only for infantry and target practice, but for vehicle drivers and police officers looking to simulate various situations they are likely to encounter.

To enhance that training, operators can drop threats into the environment, including IEDs and enemy shooters, as well as signals that should tip them off to potential threats and see how they respond before they actually find themselves in that situation. This sort of versatile, multi-situational complexity is precisely what the Army is looking for.

VIPE3Brig. Gen. Michael Lundy, deputy commanding general at the Army Combined Arms Center, said during the AUSA Aviation symposium earlier this month:

For us to be able to execute realistic training — good training — we have to be able to bring that operational environment [into the virtual world]. We want to get away from having multiple environments, virtual gaming and instruction, and go to one synthetic environment, get to a lower overhead and integrate the full operations process … according to the common operating picture.

But looking ahead, the applications for this type of technology are virtually (no pun!) limitless, never mind the fact that we are realizing something directly out of Star Trek. Northrop says it’s also exploring options for VIPE as a stepping stone to live-training within the medical field, as well as law enforcement and first responders for situations such as live-shooter or hostage scenarios.

ESO2Immersive virtual reality also figures quite prominently in NASA’s and other space agencies plans for future exploration. Given that manned missions are expensive, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous, mission planners are investigating Telexploration as a possible alternative. Here, orbiters and rovers would transmit visual information in real-time, while VR decks would be used to give the appearance of being on location.

As Ryan Frost, Northrop’s program manager for the VIPE Holodeck, put it:

The great thing about virtual reality and gaming technology [is that] it’s moving so rapidly that really it has endless possibilities that we can do. If you can think it, we can create it, eventually.

And be sure to check out this video from Northrop Grumman showing the VIPE Holodeck in action:


News from Mars: Oxygen-Rich Atmosphere

marsEver since the Opportunity and Curiosity Rovers began their research stint on the red planet, evidence has been pouring in that indicates that the planet once supported life. And now, by examining the compositions of Martian meteorites found on Earth and data provided by the Mars rovers, Scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford have determined that the planet once boasted an oxygen-rich atmosphere.

The key determinant was the fact that the Martian surface rocks were five times richer in nickel than the meteorites found on Earth, a find which cast doubt on whether the meteorites were typical volcanic products. Whilst it is possible that the geological composition of Mars varies immensely from region to region, the team believes that it is more likely that the differences arise through a process known as subduction – in which material is recycled into the interior.

mars_oxygenThe scientists suggest that the Martian surface was oxidized very early in the history of the planet and that, through subduction, this oxygen-rich material was drawn into the shallow interior and recycled back to the surface during eruptions 4 billion years ago. The meteorites, by contrast, are much younger volcanic rocks that emerged from deeper within the planet and so were less influenced by this process.

As Professor Bernard Wood, the senior author of a study that appeared in Nature magazine, put it:

What we have shown is that both meteorites and surface volcanic rocks are consistent with similar origins in the deep interior of Mars but that the surface rocks come from a more oxygen-rich environment, probably caused by recycling of oxygen-rich materials into the interior. This result is surprising because while the meteorites are geologically young, around 180 million to 1.4 billion years old, the Spirit rover was analyzing a very old part of Mars, more than 3.7 billion years old.

In addition to evidence that Mars once had a sizable amount of surface water, in the form of rivers and lakes, this latest study demonstrates that Mars was once very much like Earth. In all likelihood, it would have been home to countless forms of bacteria, single-celled organisms, and possibly larger creatures as well. But being at the edge of our Sun’s habitable zone, it was unable to maintain the conditions for life to thrive.

terraforming-hswmarsSad news, but encouraging when it comes to the prospect of making Mars able to sustain life again. And in the coming years and decades, that’s precisely what a number of space agencies, private companies and citizens want to do. And if these plans are to succeed long term, the planet will have to be converted into something that can independently support life.

In short, the colonization of Mars requires that the planet become something akin to its old self.