Researchers with the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are designing a self-return system for spacesuits which would guide disoriented astronauts back to their space station. Scientists say the “take me home” button could eventually have applications for firefighters, skydivers and others whose clothing can be equipped with sensors and smart tech.
As dramatized in numerous sci-fi movies, space is definitely a spot you don’t want to get lost in — the vacuum of outer space means certain death for any human unable to make it back to the relative comforts of a space station — and without gravity providing an up and a down, disorientation is a distinct possibility. And with space agencies around the world including NASA and Roscosmos currently making plans for putting more humans into the great beyond, there’s now a need for a tech upgrade to the spacesuit.
“Without a fail-proof way to return to the spacecraft, an astronaut is at risk of the worst-case scenario: lost in space,” said Kevin Duda, a space systems engineer at Draper, which recently filed a patent for its invention, stating that the system would be able to either give directional cues (visual, auditory or even tactile) to a space walker or actually start up the astronaut’s jetpack and deliver him or her back home itself.
“The system estimates a crewmember’s navigation state relative to a fixed location, for example on an accompanying orbiting spacecraft, and computes a guidance trajectory for returning the crewmember to that fixed location,” reads the patent.
Draper says that the NASA-funded project, which could be five to ten years in the making, could potentially be technology applicable to other more terrestrial (but still dangerous) scenarios such as firefighting or scuba-diving where individuals may need help finding their bearings.
While Mars is definitely still the long-term goal in terms of human-led space exploration, that prospect is still 20 to 30 years down the space road. Currently, it’s the moon that’s the apple of everyone’s eye, as space agencies around the globe are gearing up for more moon landings, moon walks as well as a moon orbiting station to replace the soon-to-be-decommissioned International Space Station. In addition to US and Russian efforts, China, India and the European Space Agency are all planning moon missions, while on the private side, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is aiming to start sending tourists around the moon as early as next year.
“The moon is closer [than Mars] and we need to relearn planetary exploration,” says Gordon Osinski, National Science and Engineering Research Council chair in Earth and Space Exploration at Western University in London, Ontario, to CTV News. “NASA hasn’t been talking about the lunar surface for years. It’s new and exciting, the prospect of landing on the moon,” says Osinski.
This past summer, SpaceX revealed its sleek new spacesuit design which the company said was modelled to “balance aesthetics and function.” The form fitting gear will not actually be worn on space walks, however, and will only serve the purpose of protecting travellers within spacecraft from sudden changes in air pressure.