State-of-the-heart spacesuit

The European Space Agency is hoping to develop a flexible suit capable of continuously monitoring the health of its astronauts without hampering their work.

The Star-suit will be developed in a second Star Tiger project to be carried out in Finland.

The Star-suit will monitor the wearer’s heart and respiratory rate, location and temperature in near real time, without limiting movement. It will combine sensors, communications and packaging technologies, flexible PCB and LCD materials and embedded electronics, and will be developed at the Institute of Electronics at Tampere University of Technology.

The project follows on from the first Star Tiger programme in 2002, based at the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which aimed to develop a terahertz wave device capable of producing a colour image of an object.

The programme ended in confusion when the research team failed to produce a colour image, generating only a black and white picture of a hand, although ESA claimed the project was a success.

Eighteen months later the project has yet to produce a working system, although it has laid the foundations for such a device, said Eike Kircher, head of ESA’s basic technology research programme.

Unlike the fanfare that accompanied the launch of the first programme – an experiment in speeding up development by assembling a team of researchers and removing their administrative responsibilities for a period of four months – the new project appears to have more modest aims. ‘We hope to have at least produced the building blocks, which could then be turned reasonably easily into a working system by follow-on development work,’ said Kircher.

He added: ‘The technologies are being put into the suit to determine the health of the astronaut, and the suit is being designed in such a way that it could be worn all the time. It is the Holy Grail of this type of system, to have steady, continuous and reliable monitoring.’

Astronauts undergo health checks before, during and after a space flight, but most in-flight checks are conducted as part of different test procedures and few continuous measurements are available. The Star-suit could play an important role in ESA’s long-term plans for human space missions beyond low-Earth orbit as part of the Aurora programme, said Kircher. ‘During long-duration extra-vehicular activities on the Moon or Mars, for instance, monitoring the status of astronauts will be essential to ensure their safety.’

But the suit could be used on Earth too. ‘It could also have an application at ESA’s polar station in Antarctica where we carry out testing.’