Spacesuits With a 'Take Me Home' Button Could Save Lost Astronauts

Tuesday, 05 December 2017 - 8:02PM
Technology
Space
Tuesday, 05 December 2017 - 8:02PM
Spacesuits With a 'Take Me Home' Button Could Save Lost Astronauts
NASA
Imagine this: you're out late drinking, and you're feeling woozy, disoriented, and ready for bed. You vaguely remember how to use your cellphone, but you're annoyed that you don't have a big red button on the back that says "Take Me Home" which will instantly call you an Uber and get you where you need to be.

Now, imagine that, instead of being disoriented because you're drunk, you're suffering from inertia after floating for an extended period of time in the crushing vacuum of space. While the movie Gravity didn't get everything right in its portrayal of catastrophes in orbit around the Earth, it certainly captured one perpetual fear among astronauts: the terror of being lost in space, unable to find a way back to safety, and doomed to float endlessly until your oxygen runs out.

Engineering firm Draper may have found a way to make this fear a thing of the past. The company has filed for a patent that covers a special spacesuit which is equipped with autonomous thrusters and a large emergency button that, when pressed, will instantly shoot an astronaut back to the safety of an airlock without having to worry about which way to go when they're disoriented or confused.



Apparently, the challenge here isn't designing thrusters that can navigate to a certain location independently - if it's not possible to build an AI that can handle this job, Draper's engineers aren't above simply giving astronauts directions on a Heads Up Display and letting them guide themselves home. Instead, the big difficulty in getting astronauts to safety is the challenge of actually keeping track of location in outer space.

It's not as simple as using modern GPS tools to guide the autonomous spacesuits. Because GPS works on Earth by triangulating a device's position relative to satellites in orbit, astronauts in space are, naturally, somewhat outside of the range that these satellites can track.

What's more, there's no fixed point of reference in space, as everything is constantly moving - this is, after all, how orbits work. An astronaut who gets separated from the International Space Station could very quickly lose track of where in the endless sea of inky black sky the space station is located, and any rescue mission would similarly struggle to figure out where a lost person might be found.

Draper's patent, then, covers a device which uses sensors to determine a fixed position, which can coordinate with the airlock door that an astronaut desperately wants to return to. The specifics aren't clear - for obvious reasons, the engineers involved are keeping mum about how exactly their technology works - but it's possible that the spacesuit might navigate by mapping stars, or through other visual clues that can help it to figure out where it is, relative to where it wants to go.

If this suit can actually be created, there'll no doubt be a lot of demand for its potentially lifesaving technology. Even if NASA figures that their suits are safe enough as they are, the coming private sector space missions, particularly space tourism, would benefit hugely from an added layer of security to keep people safe while on space walks.

It would certainly avoid a Space Oddity "Ground Control to Major Tom" moment, and for many anxious would-be spacers who dream of seeing the sights in the cosmos from orbit, the extra peace of mind would definitely make the whole experience more enjoyable.

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