No astronaut would dare venture out into the vacuum of space without the protection of a spacesuit. But that’s not to say the bulky garments are comfortable, or that they don’t create problems of their own.
In fact, astronauts wearing spacesuits often find that their range of motion decreases by several degrees during spacewalks. And in a moment of crisis during a future mission to Mars, that could prove to be a critical design flaw.
Researchers at the S.U.I.T. (Spacesuit Utilization of Innovative Technology) Lab, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s newest addition to its Daytona Beach Campus, are hoping to improve astronaut mobility with the help of 3-D motion capture software.
“You’ll see 3D motion capture applied to sports, or walking, or jogging,” says Peyton Schwartz, an undergraduate majoring in Human Factors and Spaceflight Operations, and a member of the S.U.I.T. research team. “But it’s never been used before to efficiently design a benchmark for effective spacesuit design.”
Funded by the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium and a grant from the Florida Space Research program, the S.U.I.T. Lab has already conducted range-of-motion mobility tests that have yielded more than 100 videos’ worth of data to put toward developing those basic guidelines.
Unlike the traditional 2-D system employed by NASA, motion capture provides a 360° view of body movement, says S.U.I.T. Lab faculty advisor Ryan Kobrick. Observing an astronaut’s motion from a greater number of angles helps the researchers identify flaws in suit design and come up with ideas for improvement.
“You can really look at the interactions of muscle groups and types of motion,” says Kobrick. With traditional methods, “If my arm goes up, sure you can see that initial angle, but you don’t see that my arm is bent towards you.”
Among the lab’s customers is Final Frontier Design, a private company developing a suit for wearing inside a spacecraft. Subjects were photographed using motion capture software in three scenarios—unsuited, in an unpressurized spacesuit, and in a pressurized suit. They then executed a series of arm movements common for working astronauts.
Apart from this lab work, Kobrick conducted a two-week field study at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah last month. The two main goals were “to provide ‘gloves-on’ experience [for students],” says Kobrick, and to “help the industry with research on spacesuits that directly relates to the astronauts’ needs.” He and his six-person team worked on testing Final Frontier’s Thermal Micrometeoroid Garment (TMG), the outer layer of a spacesuit, as well as spacesuit gloves.
The overall goal of the program, he says, is “making the astronaut more efficient while fighting the spacesuit less.”