NASA’s Next Prototype Spacesuit Chosen By Public Vote, Next Step Testing
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
When you imagine astronauts on an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), you probably think of the bulky white spacesuit like Sandra Bullock wore in the movie Gravity. Most of the time, you would be right, because that suit is designed for EVAs in the vacuum of open space. According to the Huffington Post, NASA hasn’t redesigned the basic spacesuit since 1992, when most EVAs took place aboard the Space Shuttle or the ISS.
In 2012, NASA announced the new Z-1 prototype suit, designed for “nearly everything,” according to NASA spacesuit engineer Amy Ross, daughter of astronaut Jerry Ross. The Z series suits are being developed with technologies specifically for EVAs on planets, most especially on Mars. New technologies that will eventually help humans live and work on the red planet will be tested in each version of the Z-series suit.
NASA just released the design for the Z-2 prototype, which was chosen by the public. The “Technology” option received 233,421 votes, just over 63 percent, in NASA’s Z-2 Spacesuit design challenge. The final version of the suit, which will incorporate the new design, is expected to be ready for testing in November 2014.
Z-2 represents many technological advances over the Z-1 prototype. The most crucial design difference can be found in the torso of the suit. Z-1 had a soft upper torso, and the new Z-2 suit will have a hard composite upper torso to provide the much-needed long-term durability necessary in a planetary EVA suit. There are differences in the hip and shoulder joints of the suits as well. Two years of studies using the Z-1 suit to optimize the mobility of these joints resulted in the significant differences found in the Z-2 model. The last major difference between the suits can be found in the boots, which are much closer in nature to those that would be found on a suit ready for space, and the materials used on the Z-2 are compatible with a full-vacuum environment.
The Z-2 suit will endure the typical fit checks and mobility evaluations, as well as a very comprehensive testing campaign that will include multiple vacuum chamber tests. At least one series of those tests will include performance at full vacuum, mimicking the lack of atmosphere found in space. NASA engineers will test the suit at the Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab — a huge indoor pool used for spacewalk training. Another site at Johnson that mimics the rocky Martian surface will provide testing for the suits mobility, comfort and performance. The tests will allow engineers to make better technological choices when designing the Z-3 suit.
Z-2 will incorporate cover layer design elements, most specifically electroluminescent wiring, that have never before been used on a spacesuit. The public was invited to vote on designs created in collaboration with ILC Dover, the primary suit vendor, and Philadelphia University. The three designs were created to highlight certain mobility features for testing.
A prototype suit like Z-2 is still in the non-flight stage of development, so it will not be making a trip to space. However, the cover layer still performs an important function in ground-based testing as it protects the lower layers and technical details from damage caused by abrasion and snagging during testing. On the vain side, it also provides the suit with aesthetic appeal.
On a spacewalk, the cover layer will serve many other functions, such as protecting the spacewalker from micrometeorite strikes, the extreme temperatures in space and the harmful effects of radiation. The choice of specific high-performance materials and design details used in spacesuit engineering, even those that aren’t necessary at this stage in development, are driven by these needs.