“Mission control. . . .mission control? I’m lost in space. Repeat, I’ve disconnected from the craft.” This message coming from an untethered astronaut flying freely in space could soon be a thing of the past. Developments in spacesuit technology would allow an astronaut to simply press a “HOME” button, returning them to safety.
Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to float untethered in space died recently, but it luckily wasn’t due to being lost in the Great Beyond. However, other astronauts who want to float without the restrictive tethers and umbilical cords to a shuttle are more likely to survive with an automatic homing device which could be actively used in space suits in the next five years.
Engineers in the Draper Lab have filed a patent for a “take me home” button which will rescue astronauts if their crew mates cannot reach them.
Lead inventor Kevin Duda, a space systems engineer at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts says that he has been watching astronauts for some time. The suit could even return astronauts who were lost in harsh environments where GPS may not work, or even if they were to become unconscious because of lack of oxygen or injury.
Draper Director of Space Systems Séamus Tuohy said the “take me home” technology is a long-overdue advance in spacesuits.
“The current spacesuit features no automatic navigation solution — it is purely manual — and that could present a challenge to our astronauts if they are in an emergency.”
The patents indicates that the suit would work using three different systems which correlate data – GPS, system navigation with vision-aided location, and a star-tracker system.
The data-compilation would activate and set the astronaut’s jet-pack in the right direction. The system can be activated by the astronaut themselves, by a crewmember, or by the system (craft in data-relay with the space suit).
The patent can be viewed here.
The technology could make a simple spacewalk much less dangerous for astronauts, and expand their reach once they have been deployed to a specific spot in space.
If astronauts could jetpack between craft, it might also reduce costs for the relay of technicians from one space location to another when repairs are needed on a craft or other technological object, perhaps when AI robots are unable to conduct the fine, intuitive work of discernment.
This technology might also allow astronauts to venture out closer to planets and stars while having a docking craft near-by.
The invention is being funded by NASA, but it could also be used in terrestrial applications, such as when sky-divers are hurtling toward Earth or a deep-sea diver become disoriented or faces an emergency.
Since NASA and other government agencies are actively exploring the colonization of Mars and the Moon, we could see this technology applied in a myriad of new ways.
The next generation of spacesuit technology is slowly being unveiled. NASA recently disclosed several additional advances in space suits, such as in-helmet LCD display, vents that allow the astronaut to be cooler, allows water vapor to escape the suit, integrates space shoes, and even greatly reduces the weight of the space suit – likely so that even non-astronauts can travel easier in space.
SpaceX also unveiled a “chic” new spacesuit with a large, tinted face shield, that was recently posted to Instagram.
“Worth noting that this actually works (not a mockup),” Elon Musk wrote. “Was incredibly hard to balance esthetics and function.”
The most important part of the suit is always, however, to keep the person wearing it alive. Any technology that does that will likely be highly regarded by the space travel industry.