Science Blast: New Material Promises Better Space Suit

space walkAstronauts don bulky suits to protect themselves as they “walk” outside the International Space Station. A new material might one day make those suits even more protective. NASA

A new material might give astronauts better space suits that are strong, thin and light

Space is dangerous. It’s filled with tiny rocks that can poke holes in an astronaut’s spacesuit. If oxygen leaks out of it, that space traveler is in trouble. To better protect space travelers, researchers are designing a new type of material to toughen those protective suits. And this material is about to get its first big test in space itself.

For a year, beginning sometime in 2018, the material will hang outside the International Space Station (ISS). When it returns to Earth, scientists will evaluate how well it withstood the real perils of space.

Today’s spacesuits are good enough for space walks that last only a few hours. But if tomorrow’s astronauts must spend more time in space — living and working on the moon or Mars, for instance — they will encounter more dangers. So they will need more-protective suits. “You can get hit by all kinds of things on the moon and Mars that you normally don’t worry about on Earth,” notes Norman Wagner. He works at the University of Delaware in Newark. He’s also one of the engineers designing the new spacesuit material.

Here’s the challenge his team confronted. A spacesuit needs to be tough. Still, its fabric must be thin and light enough to let astronauts easily move around. Ordinary fabric wouldn’t meet these needs, Wagner’s team realized. So it designed a new material that relies on a special liquid.

This substance is known as a shear-thickening fluid. Such fluids are remarkable. Hit one and it briefly turns solid. But left alone, it acts like a normal liquid.

Solid and liquid at once

Scientists have known about these fluids for decades. Silly Putty is one of these. You can even make one at home. Mix cornstarch with water and you get a goo called Oobleck. It oozes like thick gravy. But slap it with your hand and it feels hard. For the brief moment of impact, the gloop becomes solid.

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