Astronaut Smart Shirt Gets Icy Test in Antarctica
The members of the XPAntarctik expedition kick off their epic 45-day trek around the icy continent.
Nothing says “astronaut” quite like a spacesuit. Whether it’s the shiny aluminized nylon flight suits worn by the original Mercury Seven astronauts or the pressurized bright orange “pumpkin suits” worn by space shuttle crews, the clothes do make the man or the woman. It’s much more than a look; the suits could be the only thing that separates an astronaut from life or death in case of an emergency. Here’s a look at some spacesuits in NASA’s storerooms.
With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA began working on a spacesuit that astronauts could wear for forays into deep space, beyond where the space station flies. Last month, the agency awarded an 18-month, $4.4-million contract to ILC Dover to design, manufacture and test a new type of spacesuit called the Z-2. Pictured here is a predecessor prototype, the Z-1, which resembles something Buzz Lightyear might have in his closet. The design is intended to be more comfortable and more flexible for spacewalkers than the Extravehicular Mobility Units, or EMU, that spacewalkers wear today.
NASA looked to the U.S. Navy when it came time to design a spacesuit for its first group of astronauts, the Mercury Seven, pictured here, who were selected in 1959. The agency modified a version of high altitude jet aircraft pressure suit. Beneath the shiny layer of aluminized nylon is an inner layer of Neoprene-coated nylon.
It wasn’t enough to simply land on the moon. The Apollo astronauts were tasked to get out of their spaceship and walk around. Three crews even got to drive around in lunar rovers. Their spacesuits were the first to include a liquid-cooled inner garment and an outer layer to protect against micrometeoroid impacts. Pictured here is the iconic shot of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin taken by his crew mate and commander, Neil Armstrong.
NASA dropped pressurized flight suits for space shuttle crews after four test flights. When Vance Brand, Bob Overmyer, Joe Allen and Bill Lenoir blasted off aboard Columbia on Nov. 11, 1982, for the fifth shuttle mission they wore just blue flights suits with oxygen helmets.
After the 1986 shuttle Challenger accident, NASA beefed-up safety requirements, which included a redesign flight suit for astronauts to wear during launch and landing. The so-called “pumpkin suits” evolved into the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, pictured here. The full-pressure suit is based on U.S. Air Force high-altitude pressure suits worn by SR-71 Blackbird and U-2 spy plane pilots. It includes a parachute pack and harness, life raft, life preserver, gloves, oxygen manifolds and valves, boots and survival gear.
To protect astronauts working outside the shuttle or the space station, NASA developed the Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or EMU. It’s more like a self-contained satellite than a spacesuit, offering spacewalkers environmental protection, life support and communications. The two-piece semi-rigid suit, which weighs about 300 pounds, is one of two kinds used on the space station today. The other is one-piece semi-rigid Russian Orlan suit. Astronaut Steve Robinson, attached to the Canadarm2 during STS-114 in 2005, is pictured here.
NASA has studied dozens of spacesuit designs over the years, including the AX-5, pictured here, which was developed at the Ames Research Center in California. The high-pressure suit uses hard metal and a composite rigid exoskeleton design.
Many old spacesuits end up in museums. But this decommissioned Russian Orlan suit took on a new life as a low-cost satellite. Dubbed SuitSat, the discarded spacesuit was filled with old clothes, outfitted with a radio transmitter and released into Earth orbit on Feb. 3, 2006. It was eventually pulled back into the atmosphere by the planet’s gravity and burned up.
Remember that pivotal scene in the movie "Apollo 13" in which crewmembers rip the biomedical sensors off their bodies? In a few years, the same procedure could be as easy as taking off your shirt, scientists with the Canadian Space Agency say.
Astroskin, a prototype device to monitor astronaut health, is a garment that fits over a person's upper body and is embedded with wireless sensors. From the ground, doctors can see an astronaut's vital signs, as well as how well the spacefarers are sleeping and how they are moving. You can see a video of how Astroskin works here.
Before sending Canadian company Carré Technologies' smart shirt on a ride to orbit, however, a lot of testing must be done to make sure it works as well as the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) hopes it will. That's why a Canadian team exploring Antarctica this month is toting Astroskin with it. [The Human Body in Space: 6 Weird Facts]
Crewmembers of the the XPAntarctik expedition, while spending 45 days in a previously unexplored region of the continent, are beaming their medical information back to civilization while wearing Astroskin.
The expedition, which kicked off on Feb. 2, is quite a workout for the eight-person team, which has vowed to use no motorized vehicles. This means the suit is getting tested during skiing, walking and climbing Antarctica's jagged peaks and glaciers.
The University of Quebec at Montreal is monitoring the suit both from the Antarctic and in its labs, and will share the data with the CSA for possible use on future space missions and other applications. Carré, meanwhile, could refine the technology beyond its initial prototype for CSA.
"The great thing about this technology is since it's wireless, it can be monitored at a distance," CSA chief medical officer Raffi Kuyumijian said in a new videoreleased by the agency.
"People who live in remote communities, for example, will have an easy access to a doctor," Kuyumijian added. "They can have these shirts on them all the time. It can trigger alarms if something wrong is happening, and alert the doctors following at a distance."
Indeed, the technology is already used for sports monitoring on Earth. A commercial version called Hexoskin is marketed to athletes as a way of checking out your heartbeat and pace during workouts. It can also be used to see how well you sleep.
Astroskin is just part of a trend of wearable technology bursting into the market in recent years. As GPS watches and blood-pressure monitors become the norm, researchers are now aiming for ideas such as headsets that could assist people with vision problems.
The CSA has not indicated when Astroskin could fly in space, but says it could be used on the International Space Station during future missions. The orbiting complex is expected to last until at least 2024.
Other organizations are also developing advanced garments for use in space. Scientists with the European Space Agency and other institutions, for example, are working on a tight-fitting "skinsuit" that could help astronauts combat the back problems that are a common consequence of long-term spaceflight.
Originally published on Space.com.
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