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New spacesuit technology helps astronauts keep their underwear clean

In the ongoing quest for human habitation on the Moon, the issue of cleanliness within spacesuits is a critical one. Future astronauts venturing to the lunar surface will be equipped with a new generation of spacesuits designed to endure the harsh lunar environment, thanks to the European Space Agency‘s PExTex project. 

However, as these suits provide safety and comfort, they could also offer a conducive environment for harmful microbial growth. This issue is further exacerbated as astronauts may potentially share these suits.

PExTex is addressing this issue by assessing suitable textiles for future spacesuit designs. Collaborating with the Austrian Space Forum, they have launched a project named BACTeRMA. This project is focusing on ways to prevent microbial growth within the inner linings of the suits.

Exploring the lunar surface poses a significant risk. The lunar surface has “hard vacuum but also wild temperature extremes, space radiation and highly abrasive dust,” all of which can have disastrous effects on spacesuits. During the Apollo era, we encountered challenges when moon dust partially jammed the seals of spacesuits.

Revolutionary materials 

Modern solutions include high-strength Twaron material, a novelty since the Apollo missions. The PExTex project, led by France’s Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX), has tested these materials, aiming for a spacesuit that can endure at least 2,500 hours of surface use. 

These tests were carried out by PExTex partner the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF), involving “ultra-high vacuum exposure, electrical discharge, temperature shifts, and rubbing with simulated moondust,” as well as nuclear accelerator radiation experiments at Austria’s MedAustron facility.

Furthermore, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) has concentrated on keeping the insides of spacesuits safe. For this, they use a technique called Biocidal Advanced Coating Technology for Reducing Microbial Activity, or BACTeRMA.

Avoiding microbial growth 

“Think about keeping your underwear clean; it’s an easy enough job on a daily basis, thanks to detergent, washing machines, and dryers. But in habitats on the Moon or beyond, washing spacesuit interiors on a consistent basis may well not be practical,” explained Malgorzata Holynska, ESA’s materials and processes engineer.

“In addition, spacesuits will most probably be shared between different astronauts, and stored for long periods between use, potentially in favorable conditions for microorganisms. Instead, we needed to find alternative solutions to avoid microbial growth.”

They ruled out traditional materials like silver or copper due to possible skin irritation and tarnishing. The BACTeRMA team opted for “secondary metabolites,” chemical compounds produced by microbes, which often possess antibiotic qualities. Working with the Vienna Textile Lab, they developed textile processing techniques using these bacterial metabolites.

BACTeRMA’s work has provided vital insights into antimicrobial substances such as violacein pigment and prodigiosin, known for its pinkish hue.

“The findings of PExTex and BACTeRMA lay the foundation for future developments in the areas of antimicrobial treatments and the integration of smart textile technologies. Additionally, these projects could have broader implications for the textile industry,” said Gernot Grömer, OwEF director.

Spacesuit simulators 

Scientists are already planning to integrate these newly developed textiles into spacesuit simulators. They have set the first analog field test for March 2024 in Armenia during the AMADEE-24 field campaign.

German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer summarized the significance of these projects, expressing his appreciation: “Space technology, funded by ESA and developed in Europe, is a crucial step to bolster the expertise of European industry and academia for future human and robotic planetary exploration.”

The implications of these advancements are vast and varied, providing a foundation not just for lunar or planetary exploration but potentially revolutionizing the textile industry on Earth. 

History of spacesuits

Spacesuits, also known as Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), have played a crucial role in space exploration. Their main purpose is to protect astronauts from hostile environments, maintaining temperature control, providing breathable air, and shielding from radiation.

The history of spacesuits traces back to the early 20th century, developing alongside the evolution of aviation and space travel technology.

Pre-space era: High-altitude suits

The journey towards spacesuits began with high-altitude suits in the 1930s. In response to the need to protect pilots from harsh conditions at high altitudes, Wiley Post and Winfield Scott used the K-1 suit as the first pressure suit in 1934. It featured an inflatable design that helped Post to reach an altitude of 50,000 feet.

The first spacesuits

The first true spacesuits, however, emerged during the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century. The Soviet Union first developed the SK-1 suit for Yuri Gagarin’s historic 1961 Vostok 1 mission, marking the first human flight into space. The SK-1 provided basic life support, shielding against extreme temperature fluctuations, and included a communication system.

In the same year, the United States introduced the Mercury Spacesuit for Project Mercury, its first manned spaceflight program. The Mercury suit was a modified version of a U.S. Navy high-altitude jet aircraft pressure suit, providing pressure regulation and oxygen supply.

Lunar EVA suits

The Apollo missions of the late 1960s necessitated a new generation of spacesuits that could withstand the lunar environment. NASA developed the A7L suit for the Apollo missions. NASA designed this as the first spacesuit for extravehicular activity (EVA) on another celestial body. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore these suits during the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

The A7L had multiple layers for insulation, integrated boots, and a portable life support system (PLSS) in the backpack. It allowed for a greater range of motion, enabling astronauts to walk, climb, and carry equipment on the Moon’s surface.

Space Shuttle Era

With the introduction of the Space Shuttle program in the 1980s, NASA’s spacesuit design shifted again. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) became the standard suit for American astronauts.

Designed for multiple uses and adjustable to individual astronaut’s body sizes, the EMU incorporated a hard upper torso shell, lower torso assembly, helmet, gloves, and boots. Its life support system was more advanced than the A7L, enabling EVAs up to eight hours.

International Space Station and Beyond

The International Space Station (ISS) era in the late 1990s and 2000s saw further refinements in spacesuit design. Russian astronauts used the Orlan spacesuit, known for its rear-entry design that allows it to be donned more quickly than front-entry suits.

In 2020, SpaceX introduced the SpaceX spacesuit, designed by Hollywood costume designer Jose Fernandez. It was used for the Crew Dragon missions to the ISS. This sleek, one-piece design marked a departure from previous bulky suits, featuring a helmet integrated into the suit and touchscreen-compatible gloves.

NASA is developing the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) for the upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon and potential missions to Mars. This suit incorporated lessons from previous designs, offering enhanced mobility, life support, and communication systems, and the capability to support longer EVAs.

The history of spacesuits charts the progress of human space exploration, from the earliest high-altitude suits to the advanced designs for lunar and Mars missions. As technology advances and our reach into the cosmos expands, spacesuit design will continue to evolve, protecting astronauts and enabling the next steps of human exploration in space.


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