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Researchers at MIT are working on a super-spacesuit that will allow future interplanetary explorers far more flexibility and freedom of movement than the bulky designs of today.

Big, heavy suits might be OK for space walks off the International Space Station, but add a little gravity to the environment, and the need for a lighter and more manoeuvrable alternative is clear. The research project, funded by NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts, is charged with exploring improvements to current spacesuit design as well as coming up with the next generation of suits for non-microgravity environments.

The Bio-Suit System is based around a custom-fitted second-skin. This would compress the skin, protecting the wearer in low pressure environments, or in a vacuum, Space.com reports. This layer would incorporate electrically powered muscle fibres that would boost both strength and endurance.

There would be a top layer to this second-skin, a spray-on, organic, biodegradable "epidermis" that would provide extra protection in dusty environments. Over this "skin", the astronaut would wear a sealed helmet, boots, gloves and a hard shell around the torso. The life support systems clip onto this hard shell, and provide the gas counterpressure. The gas would flow freely into the helmet, and down to the boots and gloves via tubes in the second skin layer.

The idea of using a compression suit instead of a large bulky system is not new: it was first proposed by Paul Webb in 1968. Until very recently, NASA had suspended research in this area, but President Bush's plans to go to Mars have breathed new life into the project.

MIT Professor Dava Newman leads the research. She told Space.com: "When we get back to the Moon and on Mars, we're not going there to stay in a habitat. EVA becomes a primary function."

The researchers are investigating new materials technologies, modelling techniques such as 3D laser scanning, to make sure that the suits they design are up to the job.

Other characteristics that might be desirable in a spacesuit are also being investigated. For example, shape change polymers and electro-emissive materials could alter the heat transfer properties of the suit, making it behave more like our own skin. Another NIAC study is investigating a suit that changes colour according to the heat requirements of the astronaut. ®

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