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Next-generation space suits will be like second skin

"With conventional spacesuits, you're essentially in a balloon of gas," said Dava Newman.

By Brooks Hays
Next-generation space suits will be like second skin
An photo-illustration of the new BioSuit, a skintight spacesuit being developed by researchers at MIT. (Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

BOSTON, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- The next generation of space suits look less Apollo 11 and a lot more Apolo Ohno, less Michelin Man and more Silver Surfer -- that is, out with the bulky, gas-pressurized suit and in with the lightweight, form-fitting second skin.

Researchers at MIT recently unveiled their latest iteration of the BioSuit. The latest garments are outfitted with springlike coils that activate when heated and pull the suit tight against the skin like shrink wrap. The MIT BioSuits won't just help astronauts show off their rock-hard abs, the suits will give them better range of motion.

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"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," explained Dava Newman, a professor of astronautics and aeronautics at MIT.

"We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counter-pressure -- applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether," Newman added. "We combine passive elastics with active materials. Ultimately, the big advantage is mobility, and a very lightweight suit for planetary exploration."

Form-fitting spacesuits have long been considered by engineers at NASA, but until recently, one major hurdle prevented researchers from turning the idea into reality. How do you get astronauts safely and efficiently in and out of a super-tight suit?

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The answer is shape-memory alloys, materials that mimic shrink wrap when heated but that can be stretched back out with little force once cooled. After a number of experiments, MIT researchers found that the BioSuit worked best with nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys.

One major problems remains, however. How do you keep the spacesuit tight? One option would be to keep the temperatures nice and warm inside the spaceship or space station, but astronauts could easily overheat -- bad idea. The other option is to develop some sort of locking mechanisms. Newman and his fellow engineers are currently experimenting with ways to lock the shrinking coils into place.

In the meantime, researchers are also brainstorming other ways their BioSuit technology might be employed.

"You could use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield," said Bradley Holschuh, a postdoctoral researcher working Newman's lab and creator of the coil technology. "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," Newman added. "We're trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe, and mobile, but these designs are not just for use in space."

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