NASA’s next generation spacesuit gets 21st century upgrade

NASA unveils its tech-forward xEMU spacesuit for future Artemis missions.
Image: NASA

NASA has released details for its next-generation spacesuit, which astronauts will wear on Artemis missions to the moon.

According to the space agency’s announcement, technological advancements in the suit will allow astronauts to “[a]ccomplish much more complex tasks than their predecessors.”

NASA named the spacesuit “Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit,” or xEMU.

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Overall, spacesuits have evolved tremendously since the days that astronauts wore the Mercury model. In fact, older versions were simply enhanced high-altitude flight suits borrowed from the U.S. Navy. Looking into the future of American space exploration, the new suit boasts plenty of 21st century upgrades.

Enhanced Safety Features

Above all else, astronaut safety is a top priority for human space missions. Thanks to the Apollo team and recent robotic moon missions, scientists understand many more facts about the lunar surface. One big safety concern is that the soil contains tiny glass-like shards.

Fortunately, the upgraded spacesuit contains a suite of dust-tolerant features that will “Prevent inhalation or contamination of the suit’s life support system or other spacecraft.”

Furthermore, the suit is designed to withstand extreme temperatures to below minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun.

Currently, astronauts wear the Portable Life Support System in a backpack during spacewalks. The new suit features a miniaturized, built-in duplicate of this system’s main parts.

Among its many functions, the life support system gives the suit power. It also provides breathable air, removes exhaled CO2, odors, and moisture from the suit. Additionally, the system helps regulate temperature, monitors the suit’s performance, and gives warnings if resources are low or the system fails.

Having a built-in backup for most of the suit’s life support features increases astronaut safety and could extend spacewalk durations.

Mobility Advancements

Astronauts on the Artemis missions can enjoy improved mobility with NASA’s new spacesuit. The human-shaped part of a suit is called a “pressure garment.” It enables space explorers to move around.

This portion also protects them from a harsh external space environment. Dangerous elements include “Extreme temperatures, radiation, micrometeoroids, and reduced atmospheric pressure.”

The garment is divided further into four parts—the helmet, the upper torso, lower torso, and cooling garment.

Advanced materials and joint bearings on a new lower torso section will allow a moonwalker to bend and rotate at the hips and bend at the knees. It also features new hiking style boots with flexible soles for more natural “walking.”

For the upper torso, new shoulder placement and enhancements will give astronauts better range of motion for their arms. They will also be able to lift objects over their heads more efficiently and reach across their bodies in the pressurized suit.

By comparison, Apollo astronauts struggled with many aspects of shoulder and arm mobility. The xEMU’s shoulders require much less effort for movement. Furthermore, bearings will enable astronauts to fully rotate their arms from their shoulders down to their wrists.

Communication Upgrades

NASA also redesigned the communications system inside the spacesuit’s helmet. Currently, astronauts must use headsets on “snoopy caps” to communicate. These caps often become uncomfortable and sweaty inside the helmet. Plus, the microphone doesn’t always track their voices accurately during movement.

The new advanced audio system in the upgraded suit contains multiple embedded, voice-activated microphones inside the upper torso. These devices automatically pick up the astronaut’s voice when he or she speaks. As such, they enable better communication between fellow spacewalkers, crewmates, or Houston-based mission control team members.

Interchangeable Parts for Multiple Interstellar Environments

Another impressive feature of the xEMU suits is that astronauts can swap parts for spacewalks or for exploring a planetary surface. The primary core system is notably compatible with multiple interstellar environments like the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway, the moon, and Mars.

For exploring the Red Planet, different parts of the spacesuit can be upgraded to accommodate the Martian environment. These enhancements include “Additional technology for life support functionality in the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, modified outer garments will keep astronauts warm in the Mars winter and help protect them against overheating in the summer season.

A new rear entry hatch will enable astronauts to climb into the spacesuit from its back side. The design allows the upper torso’s shoulder placement to fall closer together than current spacesuits. This increases mobility and makes for a better overall fit.

Furthermore, spacewalkers can move around in partial gravity with the enhanced pants and boots in the lower torso. A new quick-swap visor for helmets will protect the pressurized bubble from dents, scratches, and other wear it incurs from harsh planetary body conditions. Instead of having to send a whole helmet to Earth for repair, astronauts can simply swap damaged visors.

Custom Fit Suits

Astronauts undergo full 3D body scans at NASA’s Anthropometry and Biomechanics Facility at Johnson Space Center while simulating spacewalk functions. Using a 3D animated model, NASA can custom fit the most comfortable modular spacesuit components to individual astronauts.

This flexibility helps provide better comfort and mobility. It also reduces the risk of spacesuit-induced skin irritation.

Spacesuit Testing

As with any new technology, equipment, or programs, NASA will conduct extensive testing with the astronauts’ new “personal spacecraft” before rolling it out.

Practice on Earth is always much different than it is in microgravity. Therefore, NASA will test the spacesuit and its new components aboard the ISS to confirm their overall performance in a spaceflight environment. This testing will be vital as NASA moves forward with its goal of again sending humans to the lunar surface by 2024.

NASA will build and certify the new suit as part of the Artemis III mission. After that, the agency aims to pass the responsibility for “production, assembly, testing, sustaining and maintenance of a fleet of flight and training spacesuits and associated hardware” to the U.S. industry.