When you think of a space suit, you probably think of a white marshmallow thing attached to a monster life support system. That could be changing soon.
However iconic this image of a space suit has become in countless sci-fi movies, it is also bulky enough to get in the way of the exploration astronauts will need to do once we land on the moon and eventually Mars. The average NASA suit weighs about 110 pounds. Traversing dusty, rocky, crater-studded terrain is enough without that and 180 extra pounds of gear. Aerospace engineer Dava Newman could soon give that a makeover.
“To me, [a space suit] is really the world’s smallest spacecraft,” Newman told Space.com “As an aerospace engineer, the design challenge is how do you take all the functions of a spacecraft, miniaturize them and put them right around the person?”
Pulling that off means creating a design that still exerts enough pressure to keep an astronaut’s blood flowing and prevent it from turning into gas (that nightmare really can happen in space). Pure oxygen fills a space suit and puts the astronaut in a bubble of gas, which keeps blood liquid, but has a side effect of too much bulk.
Newman believes staying alive shouldn’t take up so much space. She wants to eliminate that bulk with her BioSuit, which stays close to the skin and mechanically generates pressure. The Biosuit and NASA’s Z-2 suit prototype (above) are meant to allow for a freedom of movement that space explorers have never felt before.
Upcoming prototypes for a mobile life support system like this will need to exert a third of the atmospheric pressure production, or 30 kilopascals of energy. Newman wants to experiment with different materials that can pressurize while providing thermal management so astronauts don’t overheat or freeze on a subzero environment like what they would be exposed to on Mars. There is also the futuristic possibility of using optical fibers that can carry information.
This suit technology isn’t just for the moon and deep space. On Earth, it can have life-changing applications for medical issues that affect movement and control. There is currently a project using this tech to give children born with cerebral palsy a fighting chance to develop greater muscle control and performance for a wider range of motion. The project also benefits the development of adult suits for space.
“Everything's so expensive to get in space,” Newman said. “You don't get to fly a lot of instruments, so when you fly them, you really have to miniaturize them. And when you do, they just have great applications, usually, on Earth…that's exciting, because you feel like maybe we can make a difference on Earth.”
Smart suits that can change human lives right here and keep the human body going on an alien planet? That’s an astronomical yes.