Austrian scientists have tested a new spacesuit that simulates the experience of being on another planet.
The 45kg test suit, developed by the Austrian Space Forum (ASF), recreates the sensory and physical constraints astronauts will have to deal with when visiting Mars, such as increased pressure on the joints and a limited field of vision.
But it also features an augmented reality display providing information from the suit’s sensor network, as well as voice and movement-controlled ‘virtual assistant’ software that will enable the astronaut to interact with other equipment such as a rover vehicle.
“A Shuttle EMU, the Russian Orlean or the ISS spacesuits would not survive the field tests we did”
Prof Gernot Groemer
Prof Gernot Groemer, executive officer on the ASF’s PolAres Programme for human-robotic exploration missions to Mars, recently took the Aouda.X suit for trials in the semi-desert of Rio Tinto in Spain.
‘Currently, there is no spacesuit system worldwide qualified for Mars surface activities; even the Apollo suits would not stand up to the task,’ she told The Engineer.
‘Plus, Aouda.X is more advanced than other suits currently used, especially when it comes to the suit electronics and the astrobiological optimisation.
‘A Shuttle EMU, the Russian Orlean or the ISS spacesuits would not survive the field tests we did and would be too heavy to be operated under 1g conditions.’
Aouda.X’s creators used a Kevlar-Panox tissue with aluminium coating to produce an effective biological barrier. A thermal control system has enabled the suit to be tested at temperatures as low as -110°C with a human test subject.
In order to simulate the physical feeling of being on Mars, which has roughly one-third of the Earth’s surface gravity, the suit has an adjustable set of strings and joints embedded in an exoskeleton that create extra pressure for its wearer to work against.
The visor can display video-conference feeds and location or close-up imagery from a portable microscope, as well as biomedical and engineering telemetry on temperature, CO2 levels, air pressure and humidity.
The in-built computer is accessed with advanced human-machine interface software and can be controlled using voice commands or hand movement from accelerometers in the gloves.
The suit also uses long-term evolution (LTE) communication protocols similar to those being prepared for the next generation of mobile-phone data transfer (4G) but for the trials, the team used a time delay to simulate Mars-Earth communication.
‘We had great challenges in the computing system — it took three years to get the hard- and software to work together the way we designed it,’ said Groemer.
‘The next major challenge was to design the interfaces for the Rovers, see what kind of existing geophysical analysis hardware we could use in the field and learn about the performance envelope of Aouda.X.
‘For example, we did motion-range tests with the same movie-making technology used for Avatar.
‘Aouda.X is only the most visible element of an entire system infrastructure built around the spacesuit simulator.’