Machine Design

Spacesuits get slim

One giant step for space fashion: MIT team designs sleek, skintight spacesuit

Julie Kalista
Online Editor

Traditional, bulky spacesuits don't give astronauts the mobility they need for working in outer space. In fact, spacesuits have only gotten heavier through the years, with current suits weighing in at about 300 lbs. About 70 to 80% of the energy astronauts exert on space walks or repair missions goes towards working against the suit to bend it.

Researchers at MIT have designed a new space suit, in hopes of changing all that. They have been working on it for seven years and the prototype is a radical departure from traditional models. Instead of using gas pressurization to protect astronauts from the vacuum of space, the new suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, involving tight layers of material wrapped around the body. The challenge is making the suit skintight but also able to stretch with the body.

If traditional spacesuits are punctured by a meteorite or small object, astronauts must immediately go back to the shuttle before life-threatening decompression occurs. With the MIT BioSuit, however, punctures can be wrapped much like a bandage, without affecting the rest of the suit. The Biosuit can also help astronauts stay in shape on long journey to Mars, letting astronauts exercise against the suit's adjustable resistance.

The MIT team is currently working on the arms and legs, which are proving difficult to design. In the Man-Vehicle Lab at MIT, students test various wrapping techniques, based on 3D models they've created of moving humans and how skin stretches during bending, climbing, and driving a rover.

According to one researcher, the finished BioSuit could be a hybrid, incorporating some elements of traditional suits, including a gas-pressured torso section and helmet. An oxygen tank will also be attached to the back. Although the spacesuits are not yet ready for space travel, they demonstrate what the team is trying to achieve: a light-weight, skintight suit that allows for maximum mobility. Researchers hope the BioSuit will be ready in ten years, which is when humans might be ready to launch a Mars expedition.

While getting the suits into space is the ultimate goal, the team is also focusing on Earth-bound applications, such as athletic training and helping people walk.

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A side-by-side comparison shows the flexibility of the Biosuit compared with the 40-year standard of gas-pressurized space suits.<br> Photo credit: Donna Coveney

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