Last updated July 28, 2020 at 2:29 pm
Space is tough on human bodies, but Aussie ingenuity may lead to a next-gen compression spacesuit that reduces the stress of microgravity.
Why This Matters: Australia is quickly and firmly taking its place among the space heavyweights.
There are plenty of risks associated with going to space – one being the huge toll that space travel has on the human body.
It absolutely ravishes our bodies. Just some of the effects you might encounter include the loss of bone strength, changes to the spine, altered cardiovascular function, and loss of muscle mass and strength.
Now, an Australian Space Agency grant will fund several advanced prototype and concept compression spacesuits, each designed to protect astronauts from the physical strains of space missions.
Local company Human Aerospace have teamed up with RMIT and several other university and industry partners to develop a suit which they hope will help position Australia among global leaders in compression spacesuit technology.
But the technology they will develop is not just useful for space travel. The researchers say the same developments are also transferrable to medical applications for burns, sports injuries, lymphedema, osteoporosis and cerebral palsy.
Director of RMIT’s Centre for Materials Innovation and Future Fashion, Professor Rajiv Padhye, says his team were eager to contribute their expertise in compression garment design and testing.
But even better – they’re searching for Masters students to join the project team.
“You might end up designing the suit worn by the first woman on the Moon for the 2024 Artemis mission, or the suits worn by the first people to reach Mars.”
Health challenges of space travel
Director and Chief Engineer at Human Aerospace, Dr James Waldie, says space travel – let alone exploration of the Lunar or Martian surfaces – took a huge toll on the human body.
Astronauts have been known to grow up to 5cm taller as their spines lengthen in weightlessness, leading to back pain during the mission and an increased risk of slipped discs once back on earth.
Human bodies in weightless space, once unloaded of gravity, also weaken. Astronauts lose muscle and up to 2% of their bone mass every month while is space.
With future missions, such as those to Mars, likely to take well over 2 years to complete, protecting people from these health impacts presents a major challenge.
“Bone loss is a particular challenge – it’s like an extreme version of osteoporosis,” Waldie says. “Your hip bones could age by 50 years over a Mars mission.”
“To get around these impacts, astronauts currently use exercise machines for around 2 hours each day while on the spacecraft,” Waldie says.
“While this is fairly effective in maintaining strength, spacecraft on longer expeditions in future won’t have the same capability to carry these bulky exercise machines, nor the spares necessary for their continued use.”
“That’s why we’re prototyping a spacesuit that keeps them in shape just by wearing it.”
Staying healthy aboard the spacecraft with next-gen spacesuit
The team’s skinsuit helps mitigate bone and muscle loss and other health side effects of weightlessness by imposing earth-like longitudinal loading on the torso and lower body.
In short, the skin-tight elastic suit has been designed to mimic the impact of gravity on the body.
“Being very light elastic and requiring no power, it also allows astronauts to continue working when in use, so is well suited to extended space missions,” Waldie says.
An earlier version of the skinsuit designed by Waldie flew twice on the International Space Station as part of a European Space Agency programme, where it was assessed for its operational readiness and ability to help reduce spine elongation.
“We were really happy with these initial results but now need to refine it further and progress it into consideration with NASA for future long duration flights,” he says.
Suited up for the Moon, or even Mars
The team is also developing an advanced skinsuit concept suit to be worn on spacewalks, Moon walks or perhaps even Mars walks.
“Existing gas-pressurised suits for spacewalking are amazing personal spaceships, but they are also bulky, heavy, rigid, unsafe, and require high maintenance,” Waldie explains.
“New designs and advancements are critical in this area too and we think elastic skinsuit pressure layers could work well as an alternative or supplement to traditional gas-pressurised layers in space suits.”
“The main challenge is to activate the elastics so that we can manage the pressure and allow them to be donned and doffed easily,” he says.
“We will work with our US collaborators in exploring new ways to achieve this activation and enable skinsuits to be a feasible option in the future, providing lighter, safer and more dexterous spacesuits.”
Helping astronauts back on earth
The third spacesuit being developed by the team is not so much a space suit, as an Earth suit.
In space, blood pressure equalises all over the body. But when astronauts return to Earth the blood is again affected by gravity, and begins to pool at the lower extremities as per normal.
Being unused to the pooling, astronauts can faint from what’s known as orthostatic intolerance.
The team will make an advanced prototype of a compressions suit to be worn by astronauts on return to Earth, to help reduce blood pooling, similar in concept to G-suits for pilots.
“This type of technology is not only about aiding the health and safety of astronauts, but also in creating medical technologies to help treat the broader population in cases such as burns, lymphedema and Peripheral Vascular Disease,” he says.