Astronauts in Trouble Will be Able to Press the “Take Me Home” Button

Living and working in space for extended periods of time is hard work. Not only do the effects of weightless take a physical toll, but conducting spacewalks is a challenge in itself. During a spacewalk, astronauts can become disoriented, confused and nauseous, which makes getting home difficult. And while spacewalks have been conducted for decades, they are particularly important aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Hence why the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory (aka. Draper Inc.), a Massachusetts-based non-profit research and development company, is designing a new spacesuit with support from NASA. In addition to gyroscopes, autonomous systems and other cutting-edge technology, this next-generation spacesuit will feature a “Take Me Home” button that will remove a lot of the confusion and guesswork from spacewalks.

Spacewalks, otherwise known as “Extra-Vehicular Activity” (EVA), are an integral part of space travel and space exploration. Aboard the ISS, spacewalks usually last between five and eight hours, depending on the nature of the work being performed. During a spacewalk, astronauts use tethers to remain fixed to the station and keep their tools from floating away.

Another safety feature that comes into play is the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER), a device that is worn by astronauts like a backpack. This device relies on jet thrusters that are controlled by a small joystick to allow astronauts to move around in space in the event that they become untethered and float away. This device was used extensively during the construction of the ISS, which involved over 150 spacewalks.

However, even with a SAFER on, it is not difficult for an astronaut to become disoriented during and EVA and lose their bearings. Or as Draper engineer Kevin Duda indicated in a Draper press statement, “Without a fail-proof way to return to the spacecraft, an astronaut is at risk of the worst-case scenario: lost in space.” As a space systems engineer, Duda has studied astronauts and their habitat on board the International Space Station for some time.

He and his colleagues recently filed a patent for the technology, which they refer to as an “assisted extravehicular activity self-return” system. As they described the concept in the patent:

“The system estimates a crewmember’s navigation state relative to a fixed location, for example on an accompanying orbiting spacecraft, and computes a guidance trajectory for returning the crewmember to that fixed location. The system may account for safety and clearance requirements while computing the guidance trajectory.”

On the way back from the moon, Apollo 17 astronaut Ronald Evans went on a spacewalk. Evans brought in film from cameras outside the command and service module. Apollo 17 was the final Apollo mission to the moon. Credit: NASA

In one configuration, the system will control the crew member’s SAFER pack and follow a prescribed trajectory back to a location designated as “home”. In another, the system will provide directions in the form of visual, auditory or tactile cues to direct the crew member back to their starting point. The crew member will be able to activate the system themselves, but a remote operator will also be able to turn it on if need be.

According to Séamus Tuohy, Draper’s director of space systems, this type of return-home technology is an advance in spacesuit technology that is long overdue. The current spacesuit features no automatic navigation solution—it is purely manual—and that could present a challenge to our astronauts if they are in an emergency,” he said.

Such a system presents multiple challenges, not the least of which has to do with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), which are simply not available in space. The system also has to compute an optimal return trajectory that accounts for time, oxygen consumption, safety and clearance requirements. Lastly, it has to be able to guide a disoriented (or even unconscious astronaut) effectively back to their airlock. As Duda explained:

“Giving astronauts a sense of direction and orientation in space is a challenge because there is no gravity and no easy way to determine which way is up and down. Our technology improves mission success in space by keeping the crew safe.”

Even tools must be tethered in space. Astronauts always make sure their tools are connected to their spacesuits so the tools don’t float away. Credit: NASA

The solutions, as far as Duda and his colleagues are concerned, is to equip future spacesuits with sensors that can monitor the wearer’s movement, acceleration, and relative position to a fixed object. According to the patent, this would likely be an accompanying orbiting spacecraft. The navigation, guidance and control modules will also be programmed to accommodate various scenarios, ranging from GPS to vision-aided navigation or star tracking.

Draper has also developed proprietary software for the system that fuses data from vision-based and inertial navigation systems. The system will further benefit from the company’s extensive work in wearable technology, which also has extensive commercial applications. By developing spacesuits that allow the wearer to obtain more data from their surroundings, they are effectively bringing augmented reality technology into space.

Beyond space exploration, the company also foresees applications for their navigation system here at home. These include first responders and firefighters who have to navigate through smoke-filled rooms, skydivers falling towards the Earth, and scuba divers who might become disoriented in deep water. Literally any situation where life and death may depend on not getting lost could benefit from this technology.

Further Reading: Draper, Google Patents

New NASA Documentary Chronicles 50 Years of Spacewalks

Spacewalks have been described by astronauts as magical, amazing, and “holy moly!” This new 30-minute NASA documentary called “Suit Up!” celebrates 50 years of extravehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalks. 50 years ago this year, the first spacewalks were conducted by Russian Alexei Leonov in March 1965 and then American astronaut Edward White followed soon after in June 1965. The documentary features interviews with astronauts past and present, as well as other astronauts, engineers, technicians, managers from the history of spacewalks.

They share their personal stories and thoughts that cover the full EVA experience — from the early spacewalking experiences, to spacesuit manufacturing, to modern day spacewalks aboard the International Space Station as well as what the future holds for humans working on a tether in space.

“Suit Up,” is narrated by actor and fan of space exploration Jon Cryer.

For more info, NASA has a special page with images and more recollections. Also, here is a list of some of the most memorable spacewalks, and here are some 3-D views of humanity’s first spacewalk by Leonov.

Medical Problem Delays Spacewalk

A medical issue with a member of the space shuttle crew has forced a change in personnel for the first scheduled spacewalk of the STS-122 shuttle mission to the International Space Station. The switch has also mandated that the spacewalk be delayed one day to Monday. NASA officials would not say which astronaut was experiencing any medical problems, but did confirm that Stan Love has replaced Hans Schlegel for the initial spacewalk.

“There was a medical issue with the crew,” said John Shannon, deputy shuttle program manager. “The flight surgeons do private medical conferences with the crew throughout the mission. The crew called down and asked for one during the rendezvous, which was a little bit of a surprise to us. They talked to the crew members, they understood what the issue was. I will just say it is not going to impact any of the objectives of this mission.”

In video shown on NASA TV, Schlegel showed no noticeable illness as the shuttle crew come on board the ISS after shuttle docking. Reports on news wires suggested that Schlegel lost his voice, but that claim was not corroborated by Shannon.

Communication during the spacewalk would be critical. Schlegel appeared to talk with the ISS crew as he entered the station, and floated easily through the Harmony node. About half of all people who fly in space experience Space Adaptation Syndrome, which include symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and headaches. But citing medical privacy policies, Shannon refused to answer any questions about the nature of the medical issue, or whether Schlegel would be available for the second spacewalk of the mission, now slated for Wednesday.

“You guys can fish all day, but I won’t bite,” Shannon said.

The spacewalk will help install the new Columbus science module, brought up in Atlantis’ payload bay. Installation of the module is the primary goal of this mission.

The shuttle docked at 12:17 pm EST on Saturday. As the shuttle approached the station, the ISS crew took photos of the shuttle to check for any damage to Atlantis. They were asked to take special note of a small tear in the insulation blanket of the Orbital Maneuvering System rocket pod along the tail of the shuttle. Shannon said the tear is probably not critical, but that it’s being looked at.

“Nobody is very excited about this one,” he said. “I don’t expect this to be an issue but the team will continue to work it.”

The insulation blankets on the OMS pods experience temperatures around 700 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit during peak heating of re-entry. A similar tear on an earlier shuttle flight was repaired by a spacewalking astronaut using surgical staples. Three spacewalks are planned during Atlantis’ current mission and a staple gun is on board if needed.

On a final note, for any Prairie Home Companion fans out there, the shuttle crew wake-up call on Saturday morning was the Powdermilk Biscuit song.

Original News Source: NASA TV