We know from our experiences on the Moon that EVA suits undergo significant abrasion and wear over the course of a mission, and with NASA's eyes fixed firmly on a mission to Mars, the next generation of spacesuits will be thrown into the unknown. In an effort to establish how they will perform, NASA has announced a competition soliciting ideas on how to test the durability of fabrics with the potential to be used in its next-gen space suits.
Current spacesuits are optimized for low-Earth orbit, meaning that while they have a degree of damage resistance, they're not quite hardy enough for venturing further afield. Following missions to the Moon during the Apollo era, Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad reported serious abrasion to his suit after only eight hours of EVA activity, which had breached the outer material of his boots and impacted their thermal properties.
A mission to Mars would require astronauts to undertake numerous EVAs, and a replacement spacesuit would be roughly 140 million miles away should the gear wear out prematurely. It's therefore essential to develop methods of testing the strength of materials to ensure that the final suit is up to the task.
"NASA is developing the next generation of suit technologies that will enable deep space exploration by incorporating advancements in science and technology," says Jason Crusan, director of Advanced Exploration Systems in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. "We have learned a lot about space suit performance through our experience on the International Space Station, and designing for a planetary surface will require us to build on that knowledge."
The agency is asking entrants to create a test with the ability to simulate the level of fiber degradation associated with exposure to lunar dust and dirt. The results will need to detail any damage (such as cuts, color changes or tears) caused to the material, as well as detail the size and volume of particles that make it through the various layers of the garment.
Upon completion of the competition, NASA expects to award three US$5,000 prizes.
Details on how to apply can be found here.