Building a better spacesuit – Verve times

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It has been 50 years since man first walked on the moon. Since then, astronauts have mainly explored low Earth orbit. Now that NASA is preparing to return to the Moon, experts are reassessing the practicality of the spacesuit.

Ana Diaz Artiles, assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University, and graduate student Logan Kluis worked on developments of the SmartSuit, a new spacesuit architecture that would create a safer and more secure spacesuit environment. best for extravehicular activity (EVA) on planetary surfaces.

The SmartSuit is a spacesuit architecture offered by Diaz Artiles that focuses on three key improvements to the current suit design; increased mobility, increased safety and informed interaction between the environment and the astronaut. More recently, Diaz Artiles and Kluis, in collaboration with Robert Shepherd, associate professor at Cornell University, developed prototype soft robotic assist actuators for knee joints.

“The current spacesuit was designed for microgravity conditions; under these conditions, astronauts don’t need to walk or move using the lower body, they generally translate to using the upper body,” Diaz Artiles said. “Now when you’re on a planetary surface, astronauts are going to have to walk, bend, kneel, pick up rocks, and many other similar activities that require better lower body mobility.”

The flexible robotic knee prototypes they developed work by using gas pressure to expand internal chambers so that they push against each other. As each expands, the actuator bends. And by using a soft material, the actuator conforms to the human body, creating a more comfortable fit and potentially reducing the risk of injury.

“Soft robotics would allow the actuators to conform to the astronaut’s body, greatly increasing their comfort compared to more rigid hard-surface actuators,” Kluis said.

Being inside the current spacesuit is like being inside a pressurized balloon. The astronaut must fight against the suit, which is not only difficult, but expends energy that astronauts will want to conserve on EVA missions. This energy spent moving against the suit contributes to the metabolic cost, which assistive robotic actuators could reduce by 15%, based on simulations specifically developed to study the effects of these actuators.

“If you’re collecting samples and doing tests, you’re spending a lot of energy,” Kluis said. “So when we go on missions like the moon and Mars, we’re either going to have to bring all that food or we’re going to have to grow it, so any kind of savings that you can have on that energy would be very helpful.”

Prototype soft robotic assist actuators work by using gas pressure to expand internal chambers, causing them to bend. Credit: Texas A&M Engineering

Their recent work has focused on actuators for knee joints, but ultimately their goal is to embed actuators in one layer of the whole body, improving the movement of multiple joints in the body. This layer would press relatively hard against the astronaut, providing additional mechanical back pressure (MCP), which increases mobility.

“Pressure and mobility have an inverse relationship,” Diaz Artiles said. “The more pressure you have in the spacesuit, the lower the mobility. The less pressure you have, the easier it is to move around.

This pressure refers to the gas pressure provided by the spacesuit to protect the wearer. The pressure of the atmosphere is about 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi). The current spacesuit provides approximately 4.3 psi, which pushes against the astronaut’s body and contributes to the balloon effect. But if a soft full-body robotic layer could deliver 1.0 psi, for example, that would reduce the amount needed for the suit to just 3.3 psi: less pressure and more mobility.

“Imagine wearing really tight Under Armor or really tight leggings. That pressure on your body would replace or add to the gas pressure,” Kluis said. “So the idea with the SmartSuit is that it would use both mechanical pressure and gas pressure.”

Another benefit of using MCP is that it might also reduce the risk of decompression sickness (DCS). DCS can occur when the pressure of the gas around us decreases relatively quickly, so the nitrogen in our body emerges as bubbles inside our body tissues. The current solution to avoid DCS in the spacesuit is to breathe pure oxygen for up to four hours before performing an EVA. By implementing MCP, astronauts can spend less time on pre-breathing requirements and more time on exploration without worrying more about DCS.

Diaz Artiles and his team continue to work on the SmartSuit architecture, and the prototype actuators are a promising development in creating a more accommodating and resourceful spacesuit for future planetary missions. Their end goal would be to make the wearer appear to be moving without the spacesuit and without sweating too much.

“Spacesuits are directly related to space travel, which is exciting, and they’re at the forefront of that,” Kluis said. “So it’s always fun to work on new technologies that can be implemented or be part of that evolution in the next spacesuit,”

The results of their research have been published in npj Microgravity, Aerospace Medicine and Human Performanceand presented at the 50th International Conference on Environmental Systems.


Future astronauts could 3D print their own spacesuits and parts as needed


More information:

Logan Kluis et al, Reducing metabolic cost during planetary ambulation using robotic actuation, Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance (2021). DOI: 10.3357/AMHP.5754.2021

Logan Kluis et al, Revisiting decompression sickness risk and mobility in the context of the SmartSuit, a hybrid planetary spacesuit, npj Microgravity (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41526-021-00175-3

Paper presented at the 50th International Conference on Environmental Systems

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Texas A&M University


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Build a Better Spacesuit (2022, April 19)
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