Current spacesuit designs are bulky and cumbersome to wear. That’s because they put an entire atmosphere around the astronaut, keeping them safe from the vacuum and temperature extremes of space. Instead of encasing an astronaut in a complete atmosphere, an alternative design using mechanical counter-pressure could give astronauts greater flexibility working in the vacuum of space.
Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT has designed a new spacesuit prototype that looks more like a superhero costume than a bulky NASA spacesuit. It works through the process of mechanical counter-pressure. Instead of an atmosphere to put pressure on the outside of a human body, it uses tight layers of fabric to give skin the pressure it needs.
Current spacesuit designs can weigh up to 136 kg (300 pounds), and are so restrictive to movement, that astronauts will spend the majority of their energy just working against the suit to bend it. A fabric-based design would be much more flexible and give astronauts a freedom of movement. Another advantage is safety. Even the slightest tear on a spacesuit will compromise its atmosphere, while a fabric suit can be easily patched up. To deal with the temperature extremes, astronauts could just put on and take off specially designed clothing.
The challenge in building a fabric-based spacesuit is to come up with a design that can exert close to one-third the pressure exerted by Earth’s atmosphere. This is 30 KPa (kilopascals). The current prototype suit only provides 20 KPa consistently, but new models have gotten up to 25 to 30 Kpa. The best solution might end up being a hybrid, with the head and torso covered with a traditional spacesuit, and the arms and legs covered only in fabric.
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Original Source: MIT News Release