Current spacesuits won’t cut it on the moon. So NASA made new ones.

When you have the chance to read my upcoming novel; TAC FORCE – Son’s of Khan, you will see how far mankind has come from where we are today. The story is centered around Moon Base Alpha and the opening of the first hotel on the
Moon. Most of the necessary resources like oxygen, water and food are being produced on base. Specialized equipment and processors have been developed to make sustainable living on the moon a reality.

When I see articles like the one below describing the new space suits astronauts of the Artemis project will wear, I see how far mankind and our technology must advance before a base like the one described in my novel is possible. We have a long way to go, but if we have the will, I am sure we will get there.

 

As astronauts get ready to go back to the moon and spend more time in space, they’ll need better gear to help them survive.

 

by Neel V. Patel

December 29, 2020

 

The upper torso of NASA’s xEMU design. NASA

A spacesuit is more like a miniature spacecraft you wear around your body than an item of clothing. It’s pressurized, it’s decked out with life support systems, and it’s likely to look pretty cool. But should the suit fail, you’re toast. 

No one has ever died because of a faulty spacesuit, but that doesn’t mean current models are perfect. Whether it’s for launch into space or reentry back to Earth, or for an extravehicular activity (EVA, colloquially known as a spacewalk), astronauts have never been completely satisfied with the gear they are forced to put on for missions. 

Fortunately, though, the flurry of new activity in space has meant we’re seeing more innovation in spacesuit design and performance than ever before. The suits look better, too. The emergence of new private vehicles like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner means NASA astronauts going to the International Space Station are wearing new spacesuits that are extremely sleek and chic. In place of the baggy orange Advanced Crew Escape Suit (affectionately nicknamed the “pumpkin suit”) that space shuttle crews used to wear when launching into orbit, SpaceX and Boeing have designed something that is much more form-fitting and half the mass. Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, the astronauts who went up on the Crew Dragon to the ISS in Mayremarked that they were extremely comfortable and easy to get on and off. Suits that are worn during takeoff and reentry are designed to protect astronauts from fire, and they plug into seat umbilicals that carry oxygen and cool air in case the cabin depressurizes for some reason. 

The most interesting work, however, has to do with NASA’s next-generation spacesuit for astronauts going to the moon—the eXploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU. It is ostensibly the successor to the spacesuits worn by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and other Apollo astronauts when they set foot on the lunar surface half a century ago.

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SpaceX Starship High-Altitude Flight Test

Today SpaceX launched their Starship for its first high-altitude test.

You can see from the video below, that only a few Raptor engines were installed. A full launch will have at least 36 Raptor engines.

Maybe the lack of engines is the reason for the explosive landing! What is remarkable is that it launched, performed maneuvers, and came in for a controlled, hard landing.

In my upcoming novel TAC FORCE – Sons of Khan, Star Cruisers landing on and taking off from the moon are common, everyday occurrences.

We aren’t at that point yet, but the progress we are seeing from SpaceX and their Starship demonstrate that our imagined future is on the way!

 

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ESA opens oxygen plant, making air out of moondust

 

In the upcoming novel TAC Force – Sons of Khan, Moon Base alpha utilizes technology to convert moon regolith into oxygen, hydrogen, and other trace gases.

Science is catching up to this science fiction, although in the story the conversion of regolith into gases and metal alloys happens on a much larger scale than is achievable today.


Oxygen and metal from lunar regolith. Credit: Beth Lomax – University of Glasgow

ESA’s technical heart has begun to produce oxygen out of simulated moondust.

A prototype oxygen plant has been set up in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory of the European Space Research and Technology Centre, ESTEC, based in Noordwijk in the Netherlands.

“Having our own facility allows us to focus on oxygen production, measuring it with a mass spectrometer as it is extracted from the regolith simulant,” comments Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow, whose Ph.D. work is being supported through ESA’s Networking and Partnering Initiative, harnessing advanced academic research for space applications.

“Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel.”

ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse adds: “And now we have the facility in operation we can look into fine-tuning it, for instance by reducing the operating temperature, eventually designing a version of this system that could one day fly to the Moon to be operated there.”

Samples returned from the lunar surface confirm that lunar regolith is made up of 40–45% percent oxygen by weight, its single most abundant element. But this oxygen is bound up chemically as oxides in the form of minerals or glass, so is unavailable for immediate use.


Credit: European Space Agency

ESTEC’s oxygen extraction is taking place using a method called molten salt electrolysis, involving placing regolith in a metal basket with molten calcium chloride salt to serve as an electrolyte, heated to 950°C. At this temperature, the regolith remains solid.

But passing a current through it causes the oxygen to be extracted from the regolith and migrate across the salt to be collected at an anode. As a bonus this process also converts the regolith into usable metal alloys.

In fact, this molten salt electrolysis method was developed by UK company Metalysis for commercial metal and alloy production. Beth’s Ph.D. involved working at the company to study the process before recreating it at ESTEC.

“At Metalysis, oxygen produced by the process is an unwanted by-product and is instead released as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which means the reactors are not designed to withstand oxygen gas itself,” explains Beth. “So, we had to redesign the ESTEC version to be able to have the oxygen available to measure. The lab team was very helpful in getting it installed and operating safely.”


Scanning electron microscope view of lunar simulant particles before the oxygen extraction process. Credit: Beth Lomax / University of Glasgow

The oxygen plant runs silently, with the oxygen produced in the process is vented into an exhaust pipe for now, but will be stored after future upgrades of the system.

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