NASA previews next-generation spacesuit for Artemis missions
In anticipation of its public debut on October 15, 2019, NASA has released a preview of the new spacesuit that will protect American astronauts on their return to the Moon as part of the Artemis missions. The updated suits are based on a modular design that provides greater safety and mobility than previous suits.
Though NASA astronauts regularly go spacewalking on the International Space Station (ISS), the suits they use to protect them from the deadly conditions of space date back to the 1980s. Even more telling is that, aside from a number of experimental efforts, the Americans haven't made a suit for lunar exploration since the Apollo days.
Now that NASA is committed to returning US astronauts to the Moon by 2024 as part of the Artemis program, the space agency is developing a more advanced spacesuit for the next generation of landing missions. Called the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), it builds not only on what has been learned about the Moon, but also from half a century of spacesuit technology development.
According to NASA, one example of this is how the xEMU uses lessons from the Apollo missions, which found that the chief hazard wasn't powdery lunar dust that wouldn't support an astronaut's weight, but from dust particles that are tiny, glass-like shards that can attack suit joints, contaminate life support systems, and penetrate lungs.
Not only are the joints and life support systems designed to be more dust resistant, but the backpack-like Portable Life Support System is a more miniaturized version of the one used for Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the ISS. This means it's not only smaller, but also that systems can have more redundancies built into them, providing greater safety in the event of a malfunction.
The new suit is based on a modular design with an upper torso, helmet, lower torso, and cooling garment – all of which can be swapped to not only provide astronauts with a better, more comfortable fit, but also to adapt the suit for different missions, such as working in zero gravity or on Mars.
These components have more advanced materials and joint bearings for greater mobility and the boots resemble hiking boots with flexible soles. The upper torso has an updated shoulder design to allow for a greater range of arm movements while pressurized thanks to a system of fabric pleats and pulley cables for a better mechanical advantage. The torso also has a rear-entry hatch, making it easier to don the suit while letting the shoulders fit more closely and safely.
The helmets have also been updated with a clear protective visor that can be swapped out on the spot instead of being sent back to Earth. In addition, the "Snoopy cap" that holds the microphones and earphones for communications has been replaced by a series of smart microphones in the suit that can automatically track the wearer's voice, much like the voice assistants now found in many homes.
According to NASA, one big advance over the old Apollo suits has been the development of 3D body scans, which allowed scientists to make detailed and accurate measurements of basic moves and postures. This means that the modular suits not only fit better, but also match a much broader range of the astronaut's movements with less chafing.
Before the new suit is sent to the Moon in the next decade, NASA plans to test it and some of its components aboard the ISS.