Science, Science and Tech

Astronauts set for sharper look with new suit developments

While the new Aouda:X spacesuit might be one of the most durable space suits in development, it is by no means alone. Other designs are working on allowing astronauts greater degrees of manoeuvrability and dexterity while operating in unearthly environments.


The NDX-2 is one such suit, being developed by the University of North Dakota in collaboration with NASA. With manned lunar exploration the main drive behind its design, the NDX-2 has been through various incarnations since initial development began in 2004. The current design incorporates a feature to help counteract any damage the suit might suffer during excursions, the torso shell of the NDX-2 contains a network of fibreglass cells filled with isoprene. Upon puncture, the mesh seals itself tight to the intruding object, and if withdrawn, can partially reseal the hole of its own accord.

The suit is currently undergoing rigorous testing at Hanksville, Utah, where the parched and rocky desert environment provides an excellent simulacrum for lunar and Martian mission simulations. By comparing biomedical data such as pulse and rate of respiration between sample collecting in normal clothing against the same task being performed in the NDX-2, the team can analyse the areas in which the suit performs well, and where improvements can still be made. But while new designs for terrestrial exploration are one thing, the NDX-2 is still quite bulky and cumbersome for use in microgravity. Fortunately, others are tackling the problems encountered in deep space.

The Bio Suit, designed by Dava Newman from MIT, is light years away from the familiar, cumbersome spacesuits worn by current spacefarers. Designed to be a “second skin”, the Bio Suit circumvents the usual methods of allowing humans to operate in near vacuum environments. Current spacesuits counteract the vacuum by filling with air pressurised to 4.3 lbs/in2, which is about a third of Earth’s atmospheric pressure, essentially turning them into a bodysuit balloon. This makes movement tiring and imprecise, as even flexing your fingers requires fighting against the difference in pressure; not ideal when attempting to make precision adjustment on the exterior of the International Space Station.

The idea behind the Bio Suit is to use tight fitting elasticated materials to provide the same counter-pressure against the body, without having to resort to pressurised air. The contour describing lines over the surface of the suit are made of nickel titanium alloys which help to disperse an even pressure across the body. They also give the Bio Suit a modular advantage; if one section of the suit is damaged, the lines isolate the puncture, allowing it to be easily patched. While layered with tough materials, a puncture in current space suits results in complete loss of air. With the air supply and other life support systems contained in a streamlined backpack, and fitting times roughly four times quicker than current models, before long the residents of the ISS could be drifting around in custom fit Bio Suits.


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October 2021
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