On October 8, three teams in various parts of the world participated in an unprecedented simultaneous test of three experimental spacesuits. Coordinated from a mission control center in Innsbruck, Austria run by the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF), World Space Walk 2013 aims at setting standards for developing suits for the future exploration of the planet Mars.

At first glance, World Space Walk 2013 seems like a lot of grown men and women with too much time on their hands dressing up and playing spaceman, but there’s a serious purpose behind the cosplay. Mars isn't exactly the garden spot of the Solar System. The gravity is one third that of Earth's, the temperature ranges from −55° C (−67° F) to 20° C (68° F) at noon at the equator in the summer and as low as −153° C (−243° F) at the poles, and there's UV and cosmic radiation to contend with.

The atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide, and at 0.6 percent the pressure of Earth’s atmosphere, it makes the summit of Mount Everest seem like breathing soup in comparison. This doesn't even take into account the utterly dry, corrosive soil and the planet-wide dust storms that last for months on end.

To handle these conditions, a spacesuit for Mars will have to be one up on the old Apollo moon walk model. This is the aim of World Space Walk 2013; to help in developing a suit for future explorers of the Red Planet.

"If we are going to prepare for a human mission to Mars in the future, we need to have as much knowledge as possible on the practicalities and limitations of working in spacesuits on planetary terrains," says Gernot Groemer, the President of the Austrian Space Forum. "For World Space Walk 2013, we have had the amazing opportunity to work with four different teams who are developing spacesuits and to collaborate on the same set of tasks. This technical test is a simple, yet important, first milestone to compare different analogue suit systems worldwide and to contribute to a growing area of research."

World Space Walk 2013 is part of World Space Week, which was established in 1999 when the United Nations General Assembly declared that October 4-10 annually would be set aside "to celebrate each year at the international level the contributions of space science and technology to the betterment of the human condition."

This year, the theme was "Exploring Mars, Discovering Earth." Among other research and education activities was World Space Walk 2013, which carries on the work of the Austrian Space Forum that conducted a mock or "analog" Mars mission in Morocco in February.

This time, three different teams in three parts of the world tested three different suits in simultaneous experiments coordinated from the Austrian Space Forum's Mission Control Center in Innsbruck. The purpose of the tests was to take the first step toward creating a universal standard for working on such analog suits – especially in regards to agility and dexterity.

Experiment designer, Alexander Soucek of the Austrian Space Forum, says, "In order to provide the safe environment needed by astronauts, spacesuits can be cumbersome and heavy. If future mission planners are to select the right suit for the right expedition, they need to have independent data for comparing and evaluating suits created by different teams."

The tests involved three suits:

  • The Aouda.X suit from the Austrian Space Forum, Innsbruck Austria.
  • The NDX-2 suit made by the Human Spaceflight Laboratory, University of North Dakota.
  • An analog suit from the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), Utah.
  • Also taking part was deep-sea diving specialist company, Comex, based in Marseille, France, who monitored telemetry.

    For the test, the teams had to complete three tasks in the suits and then without them for comparison:

    • Navigate an obstacle course, erect a tripod and mount a gnomon (the part of a sundial that casts the shadow) on it.
  • Navigate another obstacle course, remove a camera from the spacesuit pocket, and take photos of the wearer’s feet, then while pointing north, south, east and west.
  • Navigate a third obstacle course, remove a sample bag, collect, bag, and label the sample before placing it in a container.
  • "The World Space Walk experiments are designed to give a statistical measurement of the average time delay between performing typical activities wearing the spacesuit as compared to performing same activities unsuited," says analog astronaut, Luca Foresta, who tested the Aouda.X suit.

    The results of World Space Walk 2013 will be published in Astrobiology early next year.

    The video below is coverage of the World Space Walk 2013.

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