MIT develops shrink wrap space suits

Spacesuits of the future may resemble a streamlined second skin according to researchers from the US Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Instead of climbing into a conventional, bulky, gas-pressurised suit, astronauts in the future may soon be able to don a lightweight, stretchable garment, lined with tiny, muscle-like coils. These would then contract and essentially shrink wrap the garment around the body.

The skin tight, pressurised suit would support the astronaut and give them much more freedom to move. The spring like coils contract in response to temperature and are made from a shape-memory alloy, so when bent or deformed would spring back to the original shape when heated.

Many shape-changing materials ranging from dielectric elastomers to shape-memory polymers were assessed before the team settled on nickel-titanium shape-memory alloys. These return to an original shape in response to a certain temperature.

The team incorporated coils in a tourniquet-like cuff, and apply a current to generate heat. At a certain trigger temperature, the coils contract to their remembered form, such as a fully coiled spring, tightening the cuff in the process.

Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, said: "With conventional spacesuits, you're essentially in a balloon of gas that's providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space. We want to achieve that same pressurisation, but through mechanical counter pressure, applying the pressure directly to the skin, avoiding the gas pressure altogether."

Justin Cunningham

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