Fantastic–Four-costume-like spacesuits might be the new gown for astronauts. Engineers have come up with an innovative way of having a suit which wraps up around the astronaut’s body.
The traditional astronaut suit might change radically from ultra-bulky to skin-tight – lighter, stretchy, and easier to move with. The astronaut would have to plug in to a power supply on the spacecraft so that the coils making up the suit contract and wrap it around her. The suit has been designed to support the astronaut and to allow free movement when exploring space. To undo the coiling, the astronaut would have to apply some force and the suit will loosen. Basically, the suit will take the form of the person, and function as a “second skin”.
The team of researchers behind the new invention have made the active compression garments with embedded coils that contract when exposed to heat. The coils can actually ‘remember’ the shape they are to get moulded into once they are in contact with heat; they are made from a shape-memory alloy which takes on the shape it has been programmed for when moulded. Sounds a bit like the costume of the Fantastic Four, right?
Skin-tight spacesuits were always in the to-do-lists of researchers, but projects of the likes are challenging with a number of obstacles. One of the difficulties entailed was squeezing in and out of the pressurised suit which was to be very tight. The shape-memory alloys have helped dealing with this problem.
The aim of the engineers were to keep the same advantages of the conventional suit but making it sleeker. “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,” said Dava Newman, head of the suit’s design team in a statement. “We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether.”
But, how to keep the suit in such tightness? The group now has to provide a solution to this hurdle. They have considered two methods to get across the problem. They can either keep the temperature constant, or including a mechanism inside of it to prevent the coils from untightening. The first option would have unpleasant consequences as it would overheat the person wearing it, and would need heavy battery packs, which would beat the purpose of making the suit lighter. Mechanisms keeping the coils into place seem to be more feasible.