Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are working towards constructing a space suit that promises to be more flexible allowing astronauts superior mobility when they reach Mars or return to the Moon.
Since Yuri Gagarin's time spacesuits have seen scant improvement. They continue to remain the bulky, gas-pressurized outfits of yore, which provide astronauts a bubble of protection in outer space, but restrict mobility.
Now, Dava Newman and her team at MIT are developing a sleek and advanced, 'spandex and nylon BioSuit' that promises to give astronauts a 'Spiderman' like flexibility.
Together with colleague Jeff Hoffman, and a local design firm, Trotti and Associates, Newman is putting finishing touches on her lightweight, skintight suit, which instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut's body to protect it from the vacuum of space, relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body.
Apart from the flexibility factor, the BioSuit is also safe compared to a traditional spacesuit.
If a tiny meteorite or other object were to accidentally puncture a traditional spacesuit, the astronaut must return to the space station or home base immediately, before life-threatening decompression occurs. However, with the BioSuit, a small, isolated puncture can be wrapped much like a bandage, and the rest of the suit will be unaffected.
According to Newman, the finished BioSuit could be a hybrid that incorporates some elements of the traditional suits, including a gas-pressured torso section and helmet. An oxygen tank can be attached to the back, she said.
As of now, the MIT researchers are focusing on the legs and arms, which are challenging parts to design.
Key to the design, said Newman, is the pattern of lines on the suit, which correspond to lines of non-extension (lines on the skin that don't extend when you move your leg). Those lines provide a stiff "skeleton" of structural support, while providing maximal mobility.
The trick is to make a suit that is skintight but stretches with the body, allowing freedom of movement, said Newman.
"Traditional bulky spacesuits do not afford the mobility and locomotion capability that astronauts need for partial gravity exploration missions. We really must design for greater mobility and enhanced human and robotic capability," she said.
Newman further said the BioSuit could also help astronauts stay fit during the six-month journey to Mars.
Studies have shown that astronauts lose up to 40 percent of their muscle strength in space. But, the new outfits could be designed to offer varying resistance levels, allowing the astronauts to exercise against the suits during a long flight to Mars, she added.