Thursday, August 13, 2009

Re-Designing Space Suits for Mars

There apparently isn't enough time to redesign the space suit for the planned trip back to the moon (late next decade) but NASA hopes to have a more flexible, and less bulky suit ready for the planned trip to Mars (two decades later).

MIT has been working on a more streamlined version of a space suit that looks more like the form fitting suits seen in popular science fiction (left)-shown here without the necessary oxygen backpack.

To get its form-fitting look, MIT's prototype space suit wraps tight layers of stretchy spandex and nylon around the astronaut. That exerts a force on the body and uses mechanical counterpressure to deal with the vacuum of space. By contrast, traditional space suits use gas pressurization, which is part of what gives today's orbital explorers their Michelin Man look (right); the bulk also stems from multiple layers and the astronaut's life support system.

For use in space, the BioSuit must deliver close to one-third the pressure exerted by Earth's atmosphere, or about 30 kPa (kilopascals). That's about 50 percent more than the current prototype can exert consistently, though the researchers say new models have ranged up to between 25 and 30 kPa.

Today's big suits --which can weigh in at around 300 pounds--are manageable for working in microgravity environments, such as when a resident of the orbiting International Space Station does a space walk. But in land-based missions like the Moon and Mars there is more need for walking and running, or loping.

Central to the design of the BioSuit is this pattern of lines, corresponding to the "lines of nonextension" on the skin that don't stretch when an arm or leg moves. The suit's lines are meant to provide structural support while also allowing mobility. The BioSuit is also designed to let astronauts wrap a small, isolated puncture much as they would use a bandage.

Click on the heading above to see some of the design issues regarding space suits.

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