How to design a spacesuit for landing on an asteroid

Read my hit piece for Wired – and an exclusive story thanks to NASA – in full below or by following this link.

Earlier this year around 230,000 people participated in a vote to choose the outer skin of Nasa’s new Z-2 planetary exploration spacesuit.

Yet for humanity’s first manned mission into deep space Nasa isn’t actually planning to use this brand-new, if bulky, spacesuit.


Instead the two astronauts who land their Orion capsule on an asteroid yet to be chosen (at some point after 2020) will wear the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission Suit whose technology has its origins in the U2 spy plane missions and the Apollo programme.  This new suit will actually be a modified launch/entry suit for the Orion combined with Nasa’s new portable life support system (or PLSS) for space walks.

The life support system is required for keeping an astronaut’s suit pressurised and maintaining a supply of clean oxygen. The new portable life support system is worn like a backpack and acts an alternative to using an umbilical cord attached to the capsule. Effectively, the suit itself becomes like a mini space capsule.

“When I told my team they hated me for it,” Raul Blanco, chief of Nasa’s Space Suit and Crew Survival Systems Branch told “But the capsule on the first mission has no airlock for the Z-2 suit. If the capsule crashed and they were wearing the Z-2 suit rather than a launch/entry suit then it would break every bone of the astronauts’ bodies.”

“[The asteroid suit] will be a great launch suit and an acceptable — though not ideal — extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suit,” he added.

Blanco is one of the authors of the May 2014 Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission Space Suit and EVA System Architecture Trade Study which chose what the astronauts would likely be wearing on the mission sometime in the early to mid-2020s.

One version of the Nasa’s Asteroid Redirect Mission is to identify a small asteroid about 10 metres in size, launch a robot spacecraft out to meet it, capture it in a large bag, tow it into a stable lunar orbit and then send two astronauts to take samples from it. The other is for the robot space to grab a similar sized boulder off an asteroid rather than catching one whole. Nasa has just announced that the mission to capture the asteroid is expected to launch in 2019.

For Raul Blanco, designing the asteroid suit is the ultimate challenge, since “nothing like this has ever been done before as we have never been so far from home before”. And also, perhaps, nothing like this has been done before on such a limited budget.

The astronauts will have to wear the suit in the capsule for the whole month’s duration of the mission and be able to undertake two spacewalks of four hours each in the same suit. In contrast, the Apollo mission took three days each way.

For the spacewalks, the astronauts will dock their capsule with the robotic craft that has captured the asteroid. After depressurising the whole capsule (which could take up to half an hour); the astronauts will then exit through the hatch, climb down the side of the lander and finally step onto — or more likely float over — the surface of the asteroid for the first time.

Mark McDonald, Concept Analysis Team Lead at Nasa, who led the team that created the original mission concept, points out how the mission poses a number of challenges even after they have worked out how to capture and tow an asteroid, all of which they have to overcome with a limited budget.

“We are looking at what we are investing already so we can leverage it for this mission and help develop capabilities that can support many different missions in the future,” he says. Whether this is the solar-electric propulsion system to get the astronauts there, how to actually rendezvous and dock with another craft in deep space (for missions to the International Space Station they currently use GPS), or how to perform spacewalks in deep space.

“Damn near everything we are doing is great for other missions,” McDonald says, and that is important because this mission is about a great deal more than a lump of rock in space. It’s about future Mars missions and the Global Exploration Roadmap that is designed to get humanity there.

The Roadmap is an international effort led by the partners in the International Space Station to identify sustainable exploration pathways to the Moon, near-Earth asteroids and ultimately Mars, in order to develop new technology, new markets like asteroid mining, take humanity to the stars and even protect the Earth.

“You can go straight across the ocean like Columbus, or as the Vikings did jumping from Norway, to Iceland, Greenland and then North America, but the Vikings didn’t need the same level of technology as Columbus did. So we are using the hopscotch method to get to Mars.”




For Raul Blanco, getting the suit right for the asteroid mission is about “relearning the lessons of our forefathers”, whether that is remembering that Nasa has a long history of using multipurpose suits on such missions as Gemini and Apollo, even though none of those missions lasted as long as a month; or recalling how elements such as the umbilical cords for life support that the Gemini astronauts had to use when they did their spacewalks meant that the EVAs (extra-vehicle activities) themselves achieved very little.

Blanco realised that the solution to his problem was to have a launch suit that could also function as an EVA suit if a portable life support system was added to it.

”The launch/entry/abort suit for Orion, which is called MACES, will have modifications to enable more mobility for space walks and the integration of our new portable life support system, but this will be done in a way that does not compromise the emergency functionality at all, as safety is higher priority than mobility on EVAs.”

This suit has already gone through a lot of development work already.

“In ARGOS ( Active Response Gravity Overload System, a machine that simulates different gravity conditions) we have studied the types of movements astronauts make with tools to see if they are feasible. Then in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (an underwater astronaut training facility), we see if we can do stuff like we do on the station with this suit. This gives us a big test of its limitations.

“Launch/entry suits are very task-driven as they are designed for the astronaut to survive a hard landing like a Nascar crash. However, bearings which are vital for movement during the spacewalks on an asteroid are vulnerable, so we try different variations to refine the suit and make it better.

“Then there is the plumbing for the suit,” says Blanco. By this he means how to interface the space suit with the portable life-support system (PLSS). This is tested by putting the support system into a vacuum and connected to a suit containing a person positioned outside of the vacuum chamber.

The problem for the asteroid capture mission is the cost: “We can’t afford to do things like they did for Apollo all at once.”

Understandably Blanco is vague about how many dollars it will cost, because he’s only just starting the procurement work; however, he can say that “the majority of the MACES complex equipment is re-use of shuttle hardware — we are even reusing some Apollo components’ and so it’s very inexpensive”.

The PLSS itself is expensive, but it is NASA’s first new portable life support system since Apollo, which has already being developed for the Z-2.  “So we will definitely be getting our money’s worth out of it!” It is far less complex than the current life support systems and has many fewer ‘Swiss watch’ type components so it will be less expensive to build and operate.

“Our goal is for the first time to create a suit-agnostic PLSS, as it won’t care what suit it is attached to and can be used on any mission.”

Provided there’s enough budget, the plan is to develop a sophisticated informatics system with heads-up display with augmented reality for help during extra-vehicular activity.

UK space expert Mark Sims of the Space Research Centre, University of Leicester, is less sure about how useful the asteroid redirect mission is.

“The world community is split,” he says. “It is good that it is a deep space mission and it could provide useful building blocks for the future such as experience in deep spacewalks.

“However, while it is one logical step, it is not the only logical step. It is equally a logical step to build a base on the Moon or develop better propulsion systems to get to Mars quicker. Radiation is going to be a big risk when you are in deep space for a month.”

It is very difficult to put more than a minimal radiation shielding within a spacesuit, although any layers will act as a shield, the effectiveness depending on material and thickness.

“Bottom line is you can’t build much radiation protection in without making the suit unusable by making it too restrictive and too stiff to move.” Any spacewalks would have to be timed for when the Sun was quiet. “The Apollo astronauts were extremely lucky as they escaped all major solar flares.”

Sims warns that there is plenty of time for this mission to be cancelled. “Congress is still not giving them quite enough money to get them their quickly.”

Raul Blanco’s eyes are focussed on spring 2015, when he expects the mission to reach the milestone of its first review and he hopes to have the hardware ready. After that he is looking to later in the decade when he hopes to be able to test the new suit on the ISS to learn everything they can about it before the manned mission blasts off.

Mark McDonald believes all their work will be considered a success even if the mission does end up being cancelled provided that the team manages to develop technology that is “robust and working”.

“When you are trying to do something for the first time, success is having the courage for even attempting to do it.”

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