A space walk may look graceful — then again, so does ballet.
In space, the absence of gravity means that a small push can send an object moving endlessly on. It can be particularly problematic when that object is a human body.
Draper Laboratory is teaming up with NASA, MIT and others to take on the challenge of making it easier for astronauts to move through space both inside and outside a spacecraft. Their work centers around incorporating control moment gyroscopes (CMGs) into astronauts’ space suits and jetpacks.
But wait, what is a CMG?
I asked Draper to send me a video illustrating how a CMG works. They pointed me to one on YouTube, which shows how a swiveling chair can be turned using an attached, spinning bicycle wheel:
So, CMGs aren’t new. They’ve been used during human spaceflight before, going back to the 1970s and Skylab.
Today, they are used in satellites, on the international space station and in the Simplified Aid for Extravehicular Activity Rescue (SAFER) — a device used in emergencies when astronauts are separated from the space station.
Draper is developing a spacesuit called a Variable Vector Countermeasure suit, or V2Suit, which uses CMGs to assist in balance and movement coordination. The suit has a set of “wearable modules” about the size of a deck of cards, each equipped with a CMG. The modules are placed on various parts of the body to create a network. The wearer of the suit would then be able to set which direction is “down” relative to his or her own body, and the suit would respond accordingly, with each CMG generating torque to simulate resistance. The team anticipates the suit could help prevent astronauts’ loss of bone mass and muscle strength during extended stays in space.
“We’re using that property to make it feel as though you are moving against resistance when you are in space,” said Draper’s Duda, the principal investigator for the V2Suit.
“When you make a body movement that is parallel to down,” he said, “we command a resistance. So, it makes [you] feel as though you’re moving through a viscous fluid.”
The project was initially funded in Sept. 2011 by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. That funding lasted for a year.
The team is now roughly eight months into phase 2, which is scheduled to last for two years. The V2Suit has received $600,000 in funding from NASA’s NAIAC program over the course of phases 1 and 2. Draper is teaming with MIT and the David Clark Company to continue development with the goal of creating a prototype for testing and evaluation in, among other environments, NASA’s zero-G plane, otherwise known as the “Vomit Comet.” Duda says the team would like to see the suit in space in the next five to 10 years. “That would be a potentially realistic time frame.”
And in case you’re wondering, Duda says his team isn’t trying to be an astronaut buzz-kill. “We don’t want to take the fun out of it,” he said. “We don’t want this to be something they have to wear every day.”
Instead, he says, think of it as a suit that can be worn in the lead-up to landing back on Earth or periodically throughout a long mission. Duda says the team plans to work on determining that during the testing and evaluation phase.
Draper is also working on incorporating CMGs into a system for extravehicular, or EVA, missions. The company is partnering with MIT and the Johnson Space Center. Researchers at Johnson are in the process of developing a jet pack made up of a set of thrusters to help stabilize an astronaut when he or she is working around an asteroid or other larger object in space. That system currently uses gas thrusters to counter astronauts’ motion in space. Draper hopes to add CMGs to the jet pack to help reduce the need for thrusters. Ideally, the CMGs would compensate for angular motion, letting the thrusters control linear motion — as opposed to having to take on both. Two students will be spending the summer at Johnson Space Center to integrate the models with the virtual reality laboratory there, according to Duda. “We’ll be able to, basically, fly around a simulated asteroid with our control system,” he said.
The technology is not formally a part of NASA’s asteroid or manned Mars missions plans. Draper has spent an undisclosed amount for the development of the EVA technology.