Bengaluru: NASA has unveiled prototype of future spacesuits that astronauts would wear to the moon in 2024.
The spacesuits demonstrate increased mobility and flexibility, enabling more efficiency and ease of working in low-gravity environments. They are built on the existing design of the suits worn by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS).
The prototypes were demonstrated at the space agency’s headquarters in Washington Tuesday by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other engineers.
Called xEMU, these new suits are free-size, capable of fitting anyone from “the first percentile female to the 99th percentile male”, according to Amy Ross, a space suit designer present at the demonstration. This follows the infamous controversy NASA landed itself into in March when the first all-female spacewalk needed to be postponed due to lack of available sizes on board the ISS for female astronauts. The new suits would be adjusted at the shoulder, enabling size variation.
The suit also has a number of space-related technical improvements, such as the ability to be resistant to lunar dust. The regolith or lunar soil is very fine and powdery, while also being sticky and a good conductor of heat. This created a lot of problems for Apollo astronauts as the dust went into everything, including the equipment.
Spacesuits to undergo tests
Before 2024, the xEMU suits have to undergo a series of tests. Two years from now, there is another review scheduled for the suits, after which they will undergo a series of tests in vacuum chambers and low gravity to simulate the lunar environment. One of these suits will then be sent up to the International Space Station to be tested out during a spacewalk.
Design and production of the suit is also expected to invigorate the private sector.
After sending two suits up to the moon, chief engineer of ISS at NASA Chris Hansen said at the press conference Tuesday, NASA will start commissioning the private sector for further manufacturing.
“We don’t want to be in the suit production business,” he added. “That’s much better left to industry. We want them to innovate. We want them to find out how to build our suits cheaper, faster, and provide those suits to commercial entities.”
NASA’s return to the moon was announced by US President Donald Trump earlier this year under the Artemis program, which will send the first woman to the moon.
The program’s 2024 timeline has invoked concerns and criticism for being too ambitious, without enough time to build and test a new rocket, a mini space station and a lunar lander as laid out by the program. Artemis seeks to build sustainability by constructing a hopping point in the form of an orbiting station around the moon, called ‘Gateway’.
“We are going to the moon by 2024 and we want it to be sustainable,” Bridenstine said. “Ultimately the goal is this: we’re going to Mars. And in order to go to Mars, we need to use the Moon as a proving ground.”
“And of course, we want to see a lot of robust commercial habitats in low-Earth orbit as well. Ultimately, what enables us to do is then take the resources that the taxpayers give us, and go to the Moon and on to Mars, always keeping an eye on commercialisation even there. The goal here is to expand humanity further into space than ever before,” he added.