A prototype spacesuit that could help make missions to other planets viable has had its first trial on the International Space Station. An assessment of how the “skinsuit” performed has yet to be released, but the mission marks a step towards tackling a major obstacle to long-term missions in space.
Humans have hundreds of millions of years behind us of operating in a gravitational field of 9.8 meters (32 feet) per second squared since our ancestors left the ocean. But long stays in microgravity weaken muscles and atrophy bones.
Exercise helps, but astronauts returning from long missions in space often struggle to walk or even stand.Tackling the rigors of establishing a base on a new planet, even one with gravity much less than ours, could be a serious challenge. Even while in microgravity the spinal stretching associated with a long flight can cause pain.
Dr James Waldie of Australia’s RMIT University watched Cathy Freeman win gold at the Sydney Olympics wearing a skintight bodysuit and wondered if something similar could apply loading to the body, mimicking the effects of gravity. The suit is to be worn while inside space stations or interplanetary vehicles, substituting for the clothes astronauts wear for the bulk of the mission, not the cumbersome spacesuits worn on space walks or on the surface of the Moon.
Bringing such a suit into reality has proven a huge and slow process, although the same is true of making conventional spacesuits. However, in collaboration with Kings College London, the European Space Agency and MIT, the sixth iteration of Waldie's idea was produced by Dainese, best known for making motorbike leathers, and worn by Denmark's first astronaut Andreas Mogensen.
Waldie told IFLScience, “The suit is made from bidirectional elastic. It is quite strong in the vertical direction, but weak horizontally.” The vertical strength helps mimic the forces gravity apply to us when standing, with the strain increasing from shoulders to feet. “The weakness is to assist donning and doffing,” Waldie explained, “And to not inhibit breathing. It also allows the body's circumference to change to allow for fluid shifts in microgravity.”
Mogensen wore the suit for just two days during the flight so he could measure height changes with and without the suit, take skin swabs and record differences in mobility and comfort. He also wore the suit when exercising on the International Space Station bicycle ergometer and controlling a rover on the ground.
“This was designated as an 'operational and technical assessment'” Waldie told IFLScience. It was followed by a workshop to identify aspects of the suit that could be adjusted in the future. “This was just a short one to see if it is a viable garment. Two days is not enough to determine if there is any physiological advantage.”
Test results are still awaited, after which Waldie hopes to secure a much longer mission to investigate the suit's potential, but no dates have been set for either.
Waldie's research on a different type of skinsuit, for use on spacewalks or on the surface of the Moon or Mars, is progressing more slowly.