A set of space boots designed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could make space walks safer for astronauts.
Spacesuits are necessarily bulky and can be difficult to maneuver around rough terrain. The Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) developed by NASA has 14 layers of protective material and all of the required gadgets that keep astronauts alive, writes Samantha Mathewson for Space.com.
Traditional space suits make moving around difficult and dangerous
The suit alone is tough to move around in low gravity, and the gadgets only add to the difficulty. The MIT researchers report that many astronauts report problems with navigation due to the fact that spacesuits reduce their ability to see and feel what is around them.
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If an astronaut falls over on a spacewalk they are in serious danger of puncturing the suit. They will also waste time and oxygen reserves in the struggle to get back on their feet. In order to combat this, the new space boots have a number of sensors and small motors that help astronauts to navigate by vibrating when obstacles are nearby.
Researchers from the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) and the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory have made preliminary tests on the boots. While they are firmly in the early stages of development, scientists have been assessing where to place the sensors in order to assist the wearer. Their research means that the boots will be made with motors on the toe, heel and the front outside of the foot.
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“This study helped inform the language we will use to map the vibration signal to the information on obstacle location and navigation direction for the astronaut,” said Leia Stirling, an assistant professor of AeroAstro. “Providing this information to the astronaut may make them more confident and efficient during extravehicular activities and may decrease their injury risk due to trips and falls.”
NASA is working on new spacesuits that are designed to be more flexible, in preparation for planned future missions to Mars. These boots could be used to help astronauts as they cross the surface of the Red Planet, where they will have to deal with a gravitational pull that is one third of that on Earth.
The technology used in the boots could also be used to help the visually impaired and others who work in protective suits.
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“Trying to provide people with more information about the environment — especially when not only vision but other sensory information, auditory as well as proprioception, is compromised — is a really good idea,” said Shirley Rietdyk, a professor of health and kinesiology at Purdue University.
“From my perspective, [this work could be useful] not only for astronauts but for firemen, who have well-documented issues interacting with their environment, and for people with compromised sensory systems, such as older adults and people with disease and disorders,” continued Rietdyk.
According to the latest reports, NASA believes that a manned mission to Mars could become a reality by the 2030s. Before that can happen there are a huge number of technological challenges to overcome, many of them far more crucial to the success of the mission than these new boots.
However with serious plans to make a human colony on Mars, this sort of technology will improve the safety and security of future pioneers.