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

UPDATE: Spacewalkers Zip Through Tasks To Fix Broken Computer

UPDATE, 11:42 a.m. EDT: Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson finished their spacewalk in just 1 hour and 36 minutes, nearly an hour faster than what NASA budgeted for. Early tests show the replacement computer is working well, providing backup once again for the robotics, solar arrays and other systems on station.

Can two astronauts fix a broken computer quickly on the International Space Station, preventing possible problems with the solar arrays and robotics? Watch live (above) to find out.

The NASA spacewalk involving Rick Mastracchio and Steve Swanson is scheduled to start today (April 23) at 9:20 a.m. EDT (1:20 p.m. UTC), with coverage starting around 8:30 a.m. EDT (12:30 p.m. UTC). The spacewalk is scheduled to last 2.5 hours. Bear in mind that the times could change as circumstances arise.

The computer, also called a multiplexer/demultiplexer (MDM), failed for unknown reasons a couple of weeks ago. While the primary computer is working perfectly and the crew is in no danger, things get more risky if the primary computer also breaks. That’s why NASA worked to get the spacewalkers outside as quickly as possible. You can see a full briefing of the rationale here.

As a note, all non-urgent spacewalks have been suspended because NASA is still working on addressing the recommendations given after a life-threatening water leak took place in a NASA spacesuit last summer. Urgent spacewalks can still go ahead because the agency has implemented safety measures such as snorkels and helmet absorption pads in case of another leak.

That said, in the months since NASA has traced the problem to contamination in a filter in the fan pump separator. After replacing the separator, the leaky spacesuit was used during two contingency spacewalks in December with no water problems at all.

Spacesuit Leak And Fist Pumps: Ride Along With Astronaut’s Eventful Space Station Mission

The big news around astronaut circles these days is the assignment of Takuya Onishi — from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency — to Expedition 48/49 around June 2016. Onishi is from the class of 2009, and we’re guessing he’d be sure to poll his classmates on how their mission training is going.

Well, another of the 2009 astronaut class — Luca Parmitano — just returned from six months in space. It was an eventful mission, with Parmitano facing down a scary water leak during a spacewalk, using the Canadarm to berth and let go of a cargo spacecraft, and then delighting the Internet with enthusiastic fist pumps just minutes after he landed.

Parmitano speaks about the science on station (up to 150 experiments at one time!) as well as what he was experiencing during the leak:

 

“We were starting our third task, and I felt some water on the back of my head,” he said in an undated video from orbit included in the new video. “And I realized it was cold water. It was not a normal feeling. So I called ground, and that point we called to terminate the EVA.”

But he made it back safely, and looks more than ready to take on another mission in this picture. The cause of the leak is still under investigation, and NASA is holding off on more spacewalks with American suits until they figure out what happened.

Parmitano’s mission also featured a unique collaboration with teenager Abby Harrison, who broadcasted her own question-and-answer sessions with him for the astronaut to reach a younger audience.

Spacesuit Water Leak Prompts NASA Mishap Investigation

In the wake of a spacesuit water leak that sent two astronauts back to the airlock early during a spacewalk last week, NASA has convened a board to look at “lessons learned” from the mishap.

The cause of the leak, which filled Luca Parmitano’s helmet with water, is still being investigated. Some media reports say it may have been a fault within the spacesuit’s cooling system. NASA stated it plans to “develop a set of lessons learned from the incident and suggest ways to prevent a similar problem in the future.”

Chairing the board will be Chris Hansen, the International Space Station’s chief engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The other four members, who are all from NASA, include:

  • Mike Foreman, NASA astronaut, Johnson Space Center;
  • Richard Fullerton, International Space Station safety and mission assurance lead, Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, NASA headquarters;
  • Sudhakar Rajula, human factors specialist, Johnson Space Center;
  • Joe Pellicciotti, chief engineer, NASA Engineering and Safety Center, Goddard Space Flight Center.

The July 16 spacewalk stopped early at 1 hour, 32 minutes, far shorter than the crew’s planned 6.5-hour outing. All of the tasks can be easily pushed off to another time, NASA has said. The astronauts were preparing data cables and power for a Russian laboratory module that should reach the station by early 2014, among other tasks.

ISS Astronauts had to scramble to get Luca Parmitano out of his spacesuit after water leaked inside the suit, covering his face. Via NASA TV.
ISS Astronauts had to scramble to get Luca Parmitano out of his spacesuit after water leaked inside the suit, covering his face. Via NASA TV.

During and immediately after the spacewalk, NASA said the crew was in no immediate danger. A few days afterwards, Parmitano reassured officials at the European Space Agency. “Guys, I am doing fine and thanks for all the support. I am really okay and ready to move on,” he said, as reported in an ESA blog post.

Still, there was so much water inside the helmet that after a time, Parmitano had trouble hearing and communicating with his crewmates. “Squeeze my hand if you’re fine,” fellow EVA member Chris Cassidy said to Parmitano during the spacewalk.

NASA also noted there is an engineering analysis happening that is “focused on resolving equipment trouble in an effort to enable U.S. spacewalks to resume.” The board, by contrast, will be looking at aspects such as quality assurance, flight control, operations and maintenance with an eye to improving NASA human spaceflight activities in general.

NASA did not immediately release a date by which it expects the investigation to finish. Meanwhile, at least one news outlet reported that the agency is rushing some spacesuit repair tools on to a Russian Progress supply ship that will leave Kazakhstan for the International Space Station on Saturday.

Source: NASA