New spacesuit design helps astronauts stay “clean”

As we get closer to human exploration of the Moon, the issue of spacesuit cleanliness is becoming increasingly important. Thanks to the European Space Agency’s PExTex project, future astronauts will be equipped with a new generation of spacesuits designed to work in the harsh lunar environment. However, while providing safety and comfort, these spacesuits can become a breeding ground for harmful microorganisms. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that astronauts can share spacesuits.

The PExTex project aims to address this problem by evaluating suitable fabrics for future spacesuit designs. Together with the Austrian Space Forum, they have started a project called BACTeRMA. This project aims to find ways to prevent microorganisms from multiplying in the inner lining of spacesuits.

Exploring the lunar surface involves significant risk. The lunar surface is “a harsh vacuum, but also wild temperature variations, cosmic radiation, and highly abrasive dust,” all of which can have a devastating effect on spacesuits. During the Apollo program, we had problems with lunar dust partially clogging spacesuit seals.

Revolutionary materials

Modern solutions include the high-strength material Twaron, a novelty since the Apollo missions. The PExTex project tested these materials to create a spacesuit that could withstand at least 2,500 hours of surface work.

These tests were conducted by PExTex’s partner, the German Institute for Textile and Fiber Research (DITF), and included “exposure to ultra-high vacuum, electrical discharge, temperature shifts, rubbing with simulated lunar dust,” as well as radiation experiments with a nuclear gas pedal at Austria’s MedAustron facility.

In addition, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) has focused its efforts on securing the insides of spacesuits. For this purpose, biocidal coating technology to reduce microbial activity (BACTeRMA) is being used.

Preventing microbial growth

“In a habitat on or off the Moon, constantly washing the inside of spacesuits may not be feasible,” explained Malgorzata Holinska, Materials and Process Engineer at ESA. “Therefore, we had to look for alternative solutions to avoid microbial proliferation.”

Traditional materials such as silver or copper were ruled out because of possible skin irritation and tarnishing. The BACTeRMA team opted for “secondary metabolites” – chemical compounds produced by microbes that often have antibiotic properties. Together with the Vienna Textile Laboratory, they developed a textile treatment technology using these bacterial metabolites.

BACTeRMA’s work has provided important insights into antimicrobial substances such as the pigment violacein and prodigiosin, known for its pinkish hue.

The future of space suits

The results of the PExTex and BACTeRMA studies lay the groundwork for future developments in antimicrobial treatment and integration of smart textile technologies. In addition, these projects may have wider implications for the textile industry,” said Gernot Grömer, Director of OwEF.

As we continue to explore space and push the boundaries of human habitability, the cleanliness of spacesuits must be addressed. Through innovative work through projects like PExTex and BACTeRMA, we can ensure that future astronauts are protected from harmful microorganisms as they explore the harsh lunar environment.”

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