Next-gen NASA spacesuit gives serious sci-fi vibe

Space fans voted and the winning futuristic design will become a reality in NASA's new Z-2 spacesuit prototype. Now Johnson Space Center plans to test the suit so that future versions can head to the cosmos.

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The "Technology" design for the upcoming Z-2 spacesuit won the contest, thanks to almost 150,000 votes. NASA

Future astronauts exploring new planets and solar systems might eventually sport a spacesuit that looks a bit like the Sontaran uniform from "Doctor Who."

That's thanks to the 233,431 space enthusiasts and fashionistas who voted the above look their top choice out of three very different conceptual designs in NASA's recent spacesuit design challenge. The other two designs were inspired by the deep ocean and sportswear. The goal of the project is to take this showy style all the way to Mars.

The winning "Technology" Z-2 suit design has physical improvements over its predecessor that include a hard composite upper torso for long-term use during planetary Extravehicular Activity (EVA). The shoulder and hip joints have more mobility, and the boots are "much closer in nature to those that would be found on a suit ready for space," while the materials of the suit could be used in full vacuum, according to NASA.

The cover layer of the suit will also have unprecedented design elements, such as electroluminescent wiring. So it's not just the practical advances that are exciting -- this is a suit that should get "Doctor Who" and "Tron" fans dreaming about adventure.

NASA is still working on the prototype suit's cover layer, and as cool as the suit may be, it won't be used in space as is. "Because the Z-series is still in the prototype, or non-flight, phase, the design won't be making a trip to space," NASA explains on its site.

The cover layer on flight suits used for spacewalks keeps the astronauts at a safe temperature and protects them from "micrometeorite strikes" and radation. These functions require types of materials and design elements that aren't necessary in a non-flight suit. Still, NASA notes that the cover layer of a non-flight suit also performs an important function in ground-based testing, protecting the layers underneath from wear and tear.

NASA plans to have the winning Z-2 suit ready for testing by November. Tests will include using multiple vacuum chambers to mimic the lack of oxygen in space, and the suit will be sent lurching over rocky surfaces to see how well it handles movement on Mars-like terrain. Mobility and performance will be tested in the gigantic indoor pool at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Every iteration in the design of these next-generation spacesuits is one small step in the agency's mission to put astronauts walking on the surface of Mars.

 

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