NASA's Perseverance rover to test future spacesuit materials on Mars
When NASA’s Perseverance rover touches down on Mars in February 2021, it will carry with it the first-ever spacesuit samples to land on the Red Planet. The materials will be exposed to the brutal high-radiation environment to test how future astronaut-protecting suits will fare on the desolate Martian surface.
Perseverance is set to launch on July 30 atop an Atlas V rocket, after which it must brave a seven-month journey through the frigid environment of interplanetary space in order to reach Mars.
Keeping robots functioning in space has proven time and time again to be a tricky endeavor. Keeping human beings alive as they attempt to explore space, or another heavenly body such as the Moon or Mars, is another matter entirely.
The need for humans to survive in the hostile space environment outside the International Space Station led NASA and its partners to develop spacesuits called Extravehicular Mobility Units. That’s right, astronauts perform maintenance on the space station with the help of EMU’s.
Each suit is comprised of countless layers designed to protect astronauts from everything from micro meteoroid impacts to radiation exposure, temperature regulation and a host of other helpful systems. In short, they are human-shaped spaceships.
Since Mars has an atmosphere, and astronauts will be asked to undertake different challenges on their new mission – such as walking, for instance - the effort to explore the Red Planet will require a new type of suit.
NASA is in the process of designing that EMU, and what better way is there to test the durability of the spacesuit of tomorrow than by placing the materials that will be used in its construction on Mars today? Well, next year at least.
When Perseverance touches down on the red planet on February 18 next year, it will carry with it five material samples that could be used in the fabrication of the next generation of EMUs. As the rover trundles across the surface, the materials will be saturated by dust, solar radiation and cosmic rays. Eventually, this merciless bombardment will damage the chemical bonds that hold the samples together.
The samples selected for the mission are all potential candidates for the outer sections of the future spacesuit. One of the materials, called Ortho-fabric, is a meld of Kevlar, Gore-Tex and a flame-resistant material called Nomex, and is used on the current spacesuits worn by astronauts aboard the ISS. However, it has never been exposed to the environment prevailing on the Martian surface.
The Ortho-Fabric will ride alongside another tried and tested material – Vectran – which is used on the palms of current-gen spacesuits owing to its capacity to withstand lacerations.
Teflon – a candidate material for part of the astronaut’s gloves – will also be exposure-tested, as will another sample of the material protected by a specially designed dust-resistant coating. Completing the sample set is a chunk of polycarbonate, which is used on the construction of the EMU’s domed visor.
These materials are mounted next to a chunk of Martian meteorite that serves as the calibration target for Perseverance’s SHERLOC instrument. To give it its full name, the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals (SHERLOC) instrument, will observe the spectra of the samples in order to keep track decay. This data will then be compared with the results from laboratory experiments conducted back on Earth.
NASA and its partners have a huge challenge ahead in designing suits that can operate on the surfaces of other worlds, rather than in the weightless environment of microgravity experienced outside the ISS. The lunar and Martian environments offer separate but equally daunting challenges, such as punishing levels of UV radiation on the Moon’s surface and the hazardous, dusty reality of Mars.
The material tests launching with Perseverance are a key step towards devising a spacesuit capable of keeping astronauts safe as they make history.
You can tune in to watch the launch of the Perseverance rover live on NASA TV from 7 am EDT on NASA TV, with the launch targeted for 7:50 am.