Updated 05:40 AM EDT, Thu, Apr 22, 2021

MIT is Creating Skin-Tight Spacesuits for Astronauts

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MIT researchers are actively working on a new spacesuit technology that could allow astronauts to move more freely as they explore the reaches of space. If all goes well, the bubbly, baggy and even clumsy spacesuits of today could be a thing of the past. It's an image right out of science fiction: skin tight space suits that might even look cool or sexy--not that that's the aim for MIT's reseachers on this project (but shouldn't it be?). 

These new suits would be pressurized like the old suits, but they would accomplish it in a different way. 

Dava Newman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, and her team are pursuing "active compression garments" that can actually contract and expand in response to ambient energy, or heat. Tiny sprins, or coils, comprise the new suit technology, and they in turn are made up of a "shape-memory alloy" (SMA) that can return to a pre-disposed shape when heated.

"With conventional spacesuits, you're essentially in a balloon of gas that's providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere to keep you alive in the vacuum of space," states Newman. She has been working over the past ten years or so to design form-fitting suits that could revolutionize the way astronauts explore space. 

"We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure - applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials. ... Ultimately, the big advantage is mobility, and a very lightweight suit for planetary exploration." 

The next issue facing the team is how to keep the coils locked in place in order to provide constant pressure on an astronauts skin while they're in space. According to researchers, the two options are keep the suit heated (and thus the micro-coils) or find a way to mechanically lock the coils in place in order to maintain pressure. The locking mechanism seems to be the one researchers are favoring since heating the suits would require a lot of power, like a bulky batter, and that's bad. The idea with this suit design is to eliminate bulk and thus unencumber astronauts' movement.

Researchers say this technology could have applications beyond spacesuits. 

"You could use this as a tourniquet system if someone is bleeding out on the battlefield," researcher Bradley Holschuh explains. "If your suit happens to have sensors, it could tourniquet you in the event of injury without you even having to think about it." 

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