Suits you!

An MIT led team has demonstrated a next- generation spacesuit that at first glance is more haute couture than Apollo 15.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led team has demonstrated a next- generation spacesuit that at first glance is more haute couture than Apollo 15.

The outfit, dubbed BioSuit, and modelled below by MIT’s Dava Newman, represents a departure from 40 years of design that has seen the traditional, gas-pressurised spacesuit increase in weight to around 300lbs (136kg).

Such suits give astronauts a bubble of protection, but their mobility is limited by mass and the pressure.

Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, aims to change that.

Her advanced spandex and nylon suit allows improved mobility — ideal for when astronauts eventually reach Mars or return to the Moon. She and colleague Jeff Hoffman, her students and design firm Trotti and Associates have been working on the project for about seven years.

Newman anticipates the BioSuit could be ready in time for the launch of a Mars expedition. Current spacesuits could not handle the challenges of such an exploratory mission, she said.

Instead of using gas pressurisation, which exerts a force on the astronaut’s body to protect it from the vacuum of space, the suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The design challenge is ensuring it is skin-tight but malleable enough to allow freedom of movement.

The BioSuit is also claimed to be safer. If a traditional suit is punctured, the astronaut must return to the space station or home base immediately, before decompression occurs. With the BioSuit, a small, isolated puncture can be wrapped like a bandage, and the rest of the suit will be unaffected.

Newman said the finished BioSuit may be a hybrid that incorporates some elements of traditional suits, including a gas-pressured torso section and helmet. An oxygen tank can be attached to the back.

But before Newman’s BioSuit leaves terra firma, it must consistently deliver close to one-third the pressure exerted by Earth’s atmosphere, or about 30kPa (kilopascals).

The current prototype exerts about 20KPa consistently, while the researchers have succeeded in getting new models up to 25-30KPa.

Photo credit: Donna Coveney