NASA is aiming to return to the Moon by 2024, and this time with new and improved spacesuits. The agency’s new eXploration extravehicular mobility units (xEMUs) allow astronauts to move about more naturally and have longer EVA’s.
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Before anyone set foot on the moon, nobody knew what to expect. Neil Armstrong clung to the ladder at first for fear the surface might act like quicksand and suck him down. No one was swallowed up but the moon’s regolith posed an unforeseen problem. Because there’s no atmosphere to weather it and grind it down, the dust on the moon is jagged and sticks to everything. It got into seams and zippers and degraded the suits much faster than engineers anticipated.
Because of weight restrictions the lower portion of the suit lacked bearing joints and consequently were stiff. Combine that with unfamiliarity with the moon’s low gravity and you get videos of some of the most intrepid souls who ever lived falling over like toddlers. Apollo taught NASA a lot of lessons.
The suits developed for shuttle missions that are still in use for spacewalks today, known as Extravehicular Mobility Units or EMUs, have also provided a wealth of knowledge. So with Artemis on the horizon NASA has been putting what they’ve learned to use and in October of 2019 they unveiled their eXploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU for short. The new suit’s bubble helmet improves downward visibility. The xEMU also makes use of more bearing joints, particularly for the lower body to allow astronauts to walk more naturally and stoop down to the moon’s surface.
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Thumbnail Credit: NASA
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But the biggest improvements weren’t on display at the suit’s unveiling last fall. Instead, they’re hidden away in the xEMU’s portable life-support system, the astro backpack that turns the space suit from a bulky piece of fabric into a personal spacecraft. It handles the space suit’s power, communications, oxygen supply, and temperature regulation so that astronauts can focus on important tasks like building launch pads out of pee concrete.
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For the Artemis 3 mission (the first to feature a crewed landing), NASA wants to land its astronauts near the lunar south pole. This region is permanently shadowed, so it will present a greater chance that the team will find and collect water ice—a valuable natural resource, not to mention an important object of scientific inquiry.
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The larger xEMU suit is also intentionally designed to be upgradeable, somewhat like a PC motherboard, and it’s designed so that it can be upgraded and worked on in space by the astronauts to adopt new and improved technologies as they become available, rather than having to be round-tripped back to Earth for updates.
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