Remember that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when no robotic arm or any other advanced tech could save doomed astronaut Frank Poole as he hurtled into the chasm of space? That might never have happened if his suit had had an insta-return button.
With funding from NASA, the geniuses at Draper have figured out a way to keep scenarios like the 2001 disaster in science fiction. Floating out there in microgravity, astronauts can experience disorientation, confusion, and even nausea that could suddenly make a spacewalk dangerous. Space suits have always depended on manual navigation that can be almost impossible in an emergency. Just try getting your hands to operate the jetpack that could blast you back to safety when you’re so out of it you have no idea where your hands even are, let alone what they’re trying to do. If you can’t get to that jetpack, you’ll end up like Frank.
Led by inventor Kevin Duda, Draper space systems engineers recently filed for a patent for this self-return space suit, a technology that for one wasn’t inspired by sci-fi movies, but could have given a few of them less disturbing outcomes.
“The system estimates a crewmember's navigation state relative to a fixed location, for example on an accompanying orbiting spacecraft, and computes a guidance trajectory for returning the crewmember to that fixed location,” Duda and the Draper team explained on their patent submission. “The system may account for safety and clearance requirements while computing the guidance trajectory.”
You can’t just fly an astronaut back to the mothership with an idea. There was a universe of challenges to overcome when prototyping a suit with a “take me home” button. Astronauts are exposed to a harsh environment where the situation can go from zero to critical in seconds. Because GPS does not exist in space (yet), self-return technology has to think for itself and figure out the precise location to send an astronaut in trouble, and the return trajectory it computes has to factor in oxygen consumption and time along with safety and clearance requirements. Either the wearer or someone on board can activate the system. When you’re dealing with a possibly unconscious crewmember, you need to count every nanosecond.
“Giving astronauts a sense of direction and orientation in space is a challenge because there is no gravity and no easy way to determine which way is up and down,” Duda admitted. “Our technology improves mission success in space by keeping the crew safe.”
With sensors that can be adjusted to be aware of what’s going on with movement, acceleration, and an astronaut’s relative position to a spacecraft (or another object), software that uses data from a duo of navigation systems to prevent microgravity-related disorientation, gravity simulation tech plus navigation, guidance, and control modules, Draper’s smart suit was designed to adjust to almost any situation beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The navigation module is especially cool because it can be configured by a star-tracker system, vision-aided navigation, or even GPS. Unfortunately, there is still no GPS in space beyond the suit.
Draper also intends to take this far-out suit back to Earth. Wearable computer brains could gauge the surroundings of scuba divers, skydivers, first responders, and firefighters to get them out of potentially lethal situations. Fewer casualties are always something to look forward to as technology propels us into the future.