An aerospace engineer at Texas A&M University is partnering with colleagues at Cornell University to transform the future of astronauts’ spacesuits. Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles is investigating a new intelligent, hybrid SmartSuit to help resolve design and health risks associated with the current spacesuit, known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). The project is funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.
The SmartSuit, designed for exploration of the moon and Mars, incorporates soft robotics technology and gives astronauts better mobility and dexterity during extravehicular activities. The suit includes a stretchable self-healing skin that not only protects the wearer in the event of puncture, but also collects data through integrated sensors in its membrane, providing visual feedback to astronauts about their surroundings. These sensors also allow for enhanced interaction with the environment, permitting astronauts to actually “feel” rocks and terrain.
The current EMU is highly-pressurized with no robotic assistance, causing astronauts to expend extra energy. “Today’s spacesuit is like a big balloon,” said Diaz Artiles. “Astronauts fight against the suit when they move, which can lead to fatigue, musculoskeletal injuries and discomfort.” Before donning the EMU, astronauts must pre-breathe pure oxygen for up to four hours to avoid risking decompression sickness. The soft robotic technology of the SmartSuit is envisioned to provide a level of mechanical counterpressure so that astronauts would need to pre-breathe oxygen for as little as 90 minutes.