One thing that space definitely lacks is "down." Zero gravity isn't just disorienting, it also affects astronauts' health. Massachusetts-based Draper Laboratory's NASA-funded Variable Vector Countermeasure Suit (V2Suit) uses a new spacesuit technology to create a sort of artificial gravity that provides astronauts with a sense of up and down while helping relieve some of the detrimental effects of weightlessness.

In classic science fiction, zero gravity is treated like the rolling deck of a sailing ship; an annoying thing that travelers have to get used to. In reality, it's an environment that humans aren't designed for. Not only is it hard to tell up from down, but the lack of gravity also produces muscle and bone loss, and affects vision, the immune system, the heart, and a number of other body functions.

Draper’s V2Suit technology is designed to alleviate some of these problems by simulating gravity on a personal scale. It uses gyroscopes linked to sensors and an inertial measurement unit to provide realistic, variable resistance to body movements by astronauts, giving them a sense of gravity. According to Draper, this will allow astronauts to acclimatise to space faster, provide better coordination, and make them more stable during zero-g EVAs or on the surface of low-gravity planets. In addition, it can also help space travelers to readjust to life on Earth after prolonged space missions.

Left – V2Suit modules attached to a constant wear garment Right – V2Suit gyroscope/sensor module (Photo: Draper Laboratory)

Draper says that the V2Suit technology also has terrestrial applications. The laboratory is investigating how the resistance system can be used in physical therapy for the elderly, accident victims, and neuromuscular patients.

The next step in development will be a test flight of the space suit technology funded by NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program on a "vomit comet" jet flying parabolic trajectories that produce brief moments of free fall. If all goes well, Draper sees it as ready for use in spacesuits in five to ten years.

"This flight opportunity allows us to demonstrate our technology in a relevant environment for spaceflight use, as well as determine how much torque we need to generate so that astronauts can feel the resistance while weightless," says Kevin Duda, Draper’s principal investigator for the V2Suit.

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