The Future Deep-Space Suit
“For astronauts to explore deep space, suits must be sleeker, smarter, and far more maneuverable. Many of the materials that could make this happen are in labs right now. —Elbert Chu
Rather than gas pressurization, future suits may use shape-memory alloys, such as a weave of Nitinol wire made by Boston-based Midé Technology, to apply steady mechanical counterpressure. The alloy would be treated with heat to tightly fit astronauts after they don their suits, but also conform to movement.
Astronauts today peer through plastic; future visors could be made of a clear ceramic called ALON, which is thinner than bulletproof glass and three times as strong. A heads-up display by Lumus Optical, used by F-16 pilots, could migrate to space helmets as a full-color display that guides light to the eyes with optical prisms.
Concave areas of the body might require another shape-memory material to regulate the suit’s counterpressure. Syracuse Biomaterials Institute has developed the basis for this technology: carbon nanofibers that produce heat when activated by electricity, which could cause foam to expand to a preset shape.
Current suits circulate water through 300 feet of tubing to draw away body heat. Purdue
University engineers created a technology that could insulate the tubes and also produce power: glass fibers (in the future, polymers) coated with thermoelectric nanocrystals that absorb heat and discharge electricity.
One wrong squeeze from mechanical counterpressure could injure vital organs. A rigid, fully pressurized shell would provide protection without restricting an astronaut’s movement. To minimize bulk and keep the contact points between hard and soft materials comfortable, each shell would be 3-D-printed to fit its user.
So far, the best defense against a torn suit or glove is to fortify it with stronger layers. Engineers at ILC Dover investigated a better approach: Integrate self-healing materials, such as polymers embedded with microencapsulated chemicals. When the capsules rupture, the chemicals foam and heal the torn suit.
Silica aerogels, consisting of about 95 percent air, could insulate against severe temperature swings. By coating a silica nanoskeleton with a flexible polymer, a team at the University of Akron made aerogels durable and flexible enough for space. Embedded hydrogen could also block dangerous levels of radiation.
Prolonged exposure to low gravity causes bone loss and muscle atrophy, which astronauts fend off by exercising 2.5 hours each day. Devices developed at Draper Laboratory could build fitness into space suits. Gyroscopes attached to the arms and legs could provide resistance similar to the force of gravity on Earth.
A dry adhesive created at the University of Massachusetts, strategically placed on space suits, could help astronauts hold fast to surfaces and tools. Its weave of carbon fiber and Kevlar mimics the skin and tendon structure of gecko feet, giving it unprecedented strength—yet it easily peels away from surfaces.
The batteries that power life-support systems must be repeatedly charged. Zinc-oxide nanowires being developed at Michigan Technological University can convert movement into electricity. Embedding such piezoelectric wires into the fabric over knees and elbows could provide valuable redundancy in space.
Full Article: The Deep-Space Suits; Astronauts can only travel so far in existing space suits. What will it take to see the universe?