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:


Sources:
gizmag.com, motherboard.vice.com
, newsoffice.mit.edu

Space Tourism: The World View Balloon

near-space_balloonWhen the Space Age began, some five decades ago, there were many who predicted that commercial space flight would follow shortly thereafter. This included everything from passenger flights into space, orbital space stations, and even space tourism. Naturally, these hopes seem quite naive in hindsight, but recent events are making them seem feasible once more.

Consider Virgin Galactic, a commercial aerospace carrier that will begin taking passengers into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) beginning next year. And there’s Inspiration Mars, a private company that wants to send a couple on a round trip to visit the Red Planet. And now, there’s World View Enterprises, a company that plans to send to start sending passengers on a near-space balloon ride beginning in 2016.

near-space_balloon1Based in Tucson, Arizona, World View is a start-up that is looking to entice people into the budding field of space tourism by offering people a chance to get a taste of space without actually going there. Going into space is defined as traveling 100 km (62 miles) from the Earth’s surface, whereas their balloon ride will take passengers to a height of 30 km (18.6 miles), where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth

World View Enterprises recently obtained approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US $75,000 a ride, and are projected to begin in 2016. Each flight will consist of two balloon pilots and up to six passengers, which will be contained within a cylindrical capsule that comes equipped with heating and its own air-supply.

near-space_balloon2According to the company’s plan, the capsule – which measures 6 meters in length and 3 in width (approx. 20 x 10 feet) – will be deployed below a parasail (used for recovery) and tethered to a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cubic ft) helium balloon, which will provide the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to 30 km in altitude or Low-Earth Orbit.

Might sound a little dangerous to some, but the FAA has determined that World View’s design meets the engineering and environmental challenges posed by Low-Earth Orbit. They stressed that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, even though it will not exceed altitudes much above 30 km, and assigned it a safety factor of 1.4 – the same as that required of manned space systems.

near-space_balloon5The flight itself is projected to last about four hours, with the ascent taking 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will then remain at an altitude of 30 km for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.

That’s comes after, when the capsule is cut off from the balloon and begins to fall towards Earth. Once it gains enough speed, the parafoil will provide sufficient lift to slow the descent and bring the passengers in for a safe, controlled landing. Before touching down, the capsule will deploy a set of skids and lands much the same way a paraglider does.

near-space_balloon4All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points on the space tourism agenda. These include seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, and having a view of the planet that only astronauts are ever treated to. That may very well add up to an experience that is as good as being in space without technically getting there.

The only question is, will enough passengers line up for an amazing day’s flight that costs a startling $75K? Only time will tell. One thing is fore sure though. The dream of space tourism appears to finally be upon us, though it is a few decades late in coming. Today’s dreams do tend to become tomorrow’s reality, though they sometimes take longer than expected.

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from World View Enterprises showing their concept in action:


Sources: gizmag.com, fastcodesign.com,

The Truth of Yuri Gagarin’s Tragic Death Revealed

yuri_gagarin1On the morning of April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin lifted off aboard Vostok 1 to become the first human in space, becoming an instant hero to many and an historic figure. Tragically, his life was cut short when just seven years later (on March 27th, 1968) the MiG-15 UTI he was piloting crashed. Ever since, his death has been shrouded in confusion and controversy, with many theories being posited as to what actually cause.

And now, some 45 years after the fact, the details about what really happened to cause the death of the first man in space have come out — from the first man to go out on a spacewalk, no less. In an article published online on Russia Today, former cosmonaut Aleksey Leonov — who performed the first EVA on March 18, 1965 — has revealed details about the accident that killed both Yuri Gagarin and his flight instructor Vladimir Seryogin in March 1968.

yuri_gagarinA soft-spoken and well-mannered man, Gagarin began his journey into space in 1960 when he and 19 other pilots were selected to take part in the Soviet space program. Just three years after making history with the launch of the first artificial satellite into space (Sputnik-1), the Russians were eager to follow this up with a mission that would put a man into low-Earth orbit.

After a grueling selection process involving physical and psychological tests, Gagarin was selected to take the pioneering flight inside the Vostok-1 space capsule. The launch, which was eagerly monitored by people all over Russia and around the world, took place at exactly 9:07 am local time (06:07 UT) on 12 April 1961. After spending just under two hours in orbit, the capsule made reentry, Gagarin exited it and parachuted to the ground, landing at around 11:05 am (08:05 UT) in a farmer’s field outside of Engels.

vostok-1_landingObserving the landing of Vostok-1 were two school girls, who recalled the site of the capsule hitting the ground with a combination of fascination and fear:

It was a huge ball, about two or three metres high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time.

Elsewhere, a farmer and her daughter observed the strange scene of a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them by parachute. Gagarin later recalled:

When they saw me in my spacesuit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid, I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!’

After the flight, Gagarin became a worldwide celebrity, touring widely abroad to promote the Soviet’s accomplishment in putting a man into space. Upon returning home, he found himself relegated to training and other tasks, due in part to the death of his friend, Vladimir Komarov in the first flight involving a Soyuz spacecraft. Shortly thereafter, he began to re-qualify to become a fighter pilot, and died during one of his training flights.

Su-15_FlagonOfficially, reports about Gagarin and Seryogin’s death claim that the plane crashed when Gagarin manuevered the two-seated training version of the MiG-15 fighter craft to avoid a “foreign object”. The report does not specify what this object was, but the term refers to  anything from balloons and flocks of birds to airborne debris or another airborne craft. And as you can imagine, people have made some very interesting suggestions as to what this object could have been.

Now, a declassified report, which Leonov has been permitted to share, shows what actually happened during the training flight. Apparently, an “unauthorized Su-15 fighter” flew too close to Gagarin’s MiG, disrupting its flight and sending it into a spin. In his article, Leonov went on to explain in further detail:

In this case, the pilot didn’t follow the book, descending to an altitude of 450 meters. While afterburning the aircraft reduced its echelon at a distance of 10-15 meters in the clouds, passing close to Gagarin, turning his plane and thus sending it into a tailspin — a deep spiral, to be precise — at a speed of 750 kilometers per hour.

The pilot of the SU-15 survived the incident, is apparently still alive, and was not named – a condition of Leonov’s permission to share the information.

valentina_tereshkova_1Afterwards, the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova (also a Soviet cosmonaut) was officially grounded by the government after Gagarin’s death to avoid a loss of another prominent cosmonaut. After the revelation was made about the true cause of Gagarin’s death, she responded by saying that the details come as a bittersweet relief. “The only regret here is that it took so long for the truth to be revealed,” Tereshkova said. “But we can finally rest easy.

Indeed. Rest in peace, Yuri. Like many who have since come and gone, you’re a part of an extremely select few who went into space at a time when doing so was still considered by many to be an impossible dream. And regardless of the Cold War atmosphere in which this accomplishment occurred, it remains an historic first and one of the greatest accomplishments ever made by a human being.

Source: universetoday.com

Wanted: Married Couple to go to Mars

tito-mars-mission-conceptSounds like the setup for a sci-fi romantic comedy doesn’t it? But in fact, it’s the basis for a planned Mars mission which is being hosted by space adventurist Dennis Tito. As the head of the non-profit organization known as Inspiration Mars, Tito has long believed that humanity must seize on the opportunity being provided by a new generation of space exploration, with the intention of becoming a truly “multi-planet species”.

The mission will consist of sending two professional crew members –  who will likely be a married couple – on a “fast, free-return” mission, passing within 160 kilometers of Mars before swinging back and safely returning to Earth. The spacecraft will likely be tinier than a small Winnebago recreational vehicle, and will be launched on Jan. 5, 2018 when planet Earth and Mars will be in alignment.

inspiration_marsTo make it happen, Inspiration Mars has signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA – specifically the Ames Research Center (Ames) – to conduct thermal protection system and technology testing and evaluation, as well as tapping into NASA’s knowledge, experience and technologies. Tito emphasized during their initial meeting that his organization was not looking for money, but a partner to help them develop the required technologies.

The mission system will consist of a modified capsule launched out of Earth orbit using a single propulsive maneuver to achieve the Mars trajectory. An inflatable habitat module will be deployed after launch and detached prior to re-entry. Closed-loop life support and operational components will be located inside the vehicle, designed for simplicity and “hands-on” maintenance and repair.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014As already stated, the mission is a non-profit venture that is designed to inspire. As Tito himself put it:

“[the mission will engage] the best minds in industry, government and academia to develop and integrate the space flight systems and to design innovative research, education and outreach programs for the mission. This low-cost, collaborative, philanthropic approach to tackling this dynamic challenge will showcase U.S. innovation at its best and benefit all Americans in a variety of ways.”

What’s more, Tito believes that the time is right for this mission, and not only because of the orbital window of opportunity. “Investments in human space exploration technologies and operations by NASA and the space industry are converging at the right time to make this mission achievable,” he said.

The mission will last 501 days, and Tito has emphasized that it will be an American adventure, not an international one. Tito himself plans to fund the next two years of the mission, beyond that it will be funded primarily through private, charitable donations, as well as government partners that can provide expertise, access to infrastructure and other technical assistance. He also believes media rights will be a major part of things, since the mission will be an historic first and ought to be caught on tape!

mars_lifeAnd the reason they wanted a married couple to do the deed is quite simple. Jane Poyter, a member of Inspiration Mars explains:

“Imagine, it’s a really long road trip and you’re jammed into an RV and you can’t get out,” Poynter said. “There’s no microgravity … all you have to eat for over 500 days are 3,000 lbs of dehydrated food that they rehydrate with the same water over and over that will be recycled,” adding that the two crew will need the proven ability to be with each other for the long term.

Makes sense. After all, who but a couple already intimately familiar with each others foibles and used to spending an inordinate amount of time together could make it 501 days without killing each other? And as we all know, taking a trip together is the true test of a relationship’s mettle, especially when its a capsule smaller than an RV with no chance of escape!

And for Tito’s sake, I hope things work out. One thing is for sure, his dream of a public-private relationship to make space travel happen is already taking shape.

In the meantime, be sure to check out the promotional animation, showing the mission and the mechanics of the free return trajectory:

Source: www.universetoday.com, inspirationmars.com