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Lava tubes used to test space suits for future Mars, moon missions

One of the HI-SEAS crewmembers is pictured exploring Mauna Loa's lava tubes, an Earthbound analog for lava tubes on Mars and the moon. Photo by HI-SEAS
One of the HI-SEAS crewmembers is pictured exploring Mauna Loa's lava tubes, an Earthbound analog for lava tubes on Mars and the moon. Photo by HI-SEAS

April 27 (UPI) -- NASA is still a few years away from returning humans to the moon, and crewed missions to Mars are even farther down the timeline.

But for the last few years, scientists with the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, HI-SEAS, have been working hard to ensure the next generation of spacesuits can meet the needs of astronauts working on the surface of the moon and Mars.

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Today, researchers presented the results of the latest experiments with Extra-Vehicular Activity, EVA, analog spacesuits, to virtual attendees of the European Geosciences Union General Assembly.

One of the main takeaways is that it's really hard to do science in space suits.

"We try to understand the limitations and areas that need improvement when analog astronauts perform scientific and technological research on missions, while wearing analog spacesuits," Michaela Musilova, director of HI-SEAS, told UPI in an email.

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"Doing research in suits under simulated extra-vehicular activity constraints makes everything much more difficult to do and it all takes at least three times longer," Musilova said.

Currently, all the research happening on the moon and Mars is happening robotically, but NASA hopes that at some point in the near future, humans will begin shouldering some of the load.

To ensure astronauts are outfitted with the proper gear, engineers have to do tests.

And while they do plenty of tests in the lab, engineers need to see how the gear performs in real world scenarios -- preferably in environs that recall those found on the moon and Mars.

Some of the best test sites are found on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, one of the largest volcanoes on Earth.

"The volcanic terrain and lava tubes on Mauna Loa are some of the most similar geological features and materials to what is present on the moon and Mars today in some locations," Musilova said.

"Therefore, performing geological, astrobiological and other space exploration related research is very relevant in Hawaii, particularly near the HI-SEAS research station," Musilova said.

Over the last few years, engineers working at HI-SEAS have worked to develop space suits that are sturdy but flexible.

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The researchers have also focused on designing suits that are easy to get on and easily adaptable.

"They are modular, so you attach the helmet to the life support systems, which are in a backpack that can be adjusted to the analog astronaut's height and build," Musilova said.

Developers added extra protection to the suits, including knee pads, kevlar reinforcement to the arms and extra padding in the gloves to protect astronauts from sharp lava rocks -- in addition to focusing on improving suit performance over previous iterations.

"The suits themselves are made of flexible materials to allow for a relatively free range of movement, when compared to the Apollo suits," Musilova said.

Though some investigations involved the collection of quantitative data, many tests simply involve sending out would-be astronauts to move through the lava tubes and collect samples.

Engineers, observing how the equipment stands up to wear and tear, can then field feedback from testers and make adjustments.

Simply looking at all the equipment after it has been tested -- taking notes of all the bumps and scrapes -- can offer engineers all kinds of insights into what kinds of design tweaks are necessary.

"Performing research in lava tubes provides a great deal of data. Analog astronauts have to descend into caves with sharp rocks all around them," Musilova said.

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"Sometimes they need to crawl in some of the narrow parts of tubes or climb up near vertical walls. Then, they need to perform research, such as collecting sensitive microbiological samples or drilling with special equipment," Musilova said.

Though Musilova and other researchers at HI-SEAS periodically pause to summarize their findings or wrap up individual investigations, the design-test cycle never really stops, she said.

Musilova said there is still a lot more scientists at NASA and other space agencies need to understand about the way astronauts interact with their environs before they're ready to launch the next crewed missions to the moon -- and eventually Mars.

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