WASHINGTON (TIP): Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing an active “secondskin” spacesuit for future astronauts that incorporates small, spring-like coils that contract in response to heat.

These spacesuits will give astronauts the much-needed mobility and flexibility in the space environment. The coils are made from a shape-memory alloy (SMA), a kind of material that “remembers” an engineered shape and, when bent or deformed, can spring back to this shape when heated.

“With conventional spacesuits, you are essentially in a balloon of gas that is providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere (of pressure,) to keep you alive in the vacuum of space,” said Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics, astronautics and engineering systems at MIT.

Such skintight spacesuits were proposed earlier also but the hurdle was how to squeeze in and out of a pressurized suit that’s engineered to be extremely tight. In such a condition, shape-memory alloys may provide a solution. These materials only contract when heated, and can easily be stretched back to a looser shape when cool.

“These are basically self-closing buckles,” said Bradley Holschuh, a researcher in Newman’s lab, who who conceived the coil design. The group’s designs and active materials may be used for other purposes such as in athletic wear or military uniforms. “We are trying to keep our astronauts alive, safe and mobile but these designs are not just for use in space,” Newman concluded.

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