Our current spacesuits are awesome pieces of technology, but they certainly have their limitations. This is why MIT scientists (and NASA itself) have been working on a next generation spacesuit. And their latest innovation is super futuristic.
Put bluntly, it's a lot like shrink-wrapping. MIT's so-called BioSuit replaces the gas pressure in existing space suits with actual mechanical pressure produced by coils of metal wire. Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT who helped develop the latest suit explains the situation well.
"With conventional spacesuits, you're essentially in a balloon of gas that's providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space," says Newman. "We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure -- applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether."
This is really achieved using newly engineered active compression garments. As mentioned before, these garments use springlike coils of wire that shrink when heated. (See above.) The wire takes advantage of so-called shape-memory alloys that, as the name implies, remember a certain shape when heated to a specific temperature. So when cool, the suit would be flexible enough for an astronaut to get dressed, and then, a little bit of heat would shrink it down to spacewalk size.
A suit like this wouldn't just be a big deal for astronauts going on spacewalks, either. "Ultimately, the big advantage is mobility, and a very lightweight suit for planetary exploration," Newman explains. And if you've ever seen videos of astronauts bouncing around on the moon in those balloon suits, you can image how it would be challenging to get work done. However, the challenge the MIT team still faces is figuring out an efficient way to heat the coils. Keeping constant heat flowing through would be both hot for the wearer and require bulky batteries, so they're working on getting the coils to lock in place once they're heated.
This technology has other applications, of course. One especially interesting one that the researchers highlight would be for battlefield clothing, so that the material would shrink to act like a tourniquet if the soldier's wounded. Whether the scientists can find a way to make this material cheap enough to be disposable like that, well, that might take some time. [MIT]
Picture: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT