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Astronauts share spacesuit 'underwear,' and keeping it clean isn't easy

Space laundry isn't as simple as Earth laundry.

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ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet wears a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment as he tries on a spacesuit in 2020.

NASA/Robert Markowitz

Here on Earth, we tend to take laundry for granted, but daily life on the International Space Station is a bit different. Astronauts going on spacewalks not only have to share spacesuits, they have to share the "long-underwear-like Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment" that goes under the suit.

The LCVG is critical for keeping hard-working astronauts cool and comfortable when they're out working on the station. The European Space Agency (ESA) is actively looking at ways to make those space Underoos stay cleaner. 

The good news is the LCVG goes on over a "Maximum Absorbency Garment" (a diaper) and a "Thermal Comfort Undergarment," but it's still a shared piece of gear that can't just be tossed into a washing machine and freshened up. 

"Spaceflight textiles, especially when subject to biological contamination -- for example, spacesuit underwear -- may pose both engineering and medical risks during long-duration flights," said ESA material engineer Malgorzata Holynska in a statement on Wednesday.

There are a lot of undergarments under the spacesuits used by spacewalkers like astronaut David Wolf.

NASA

As ESA looks ahead to joining NASA for the future lunar Gateway project, it decided to launch the "Biocidal Advanced Coating Technology for Reducing Microbial Activity" project, which can be shortened somewhat to "Bacterma." 

The project is looking to improve on current antimicrobial fabrics, which typically use silver or copper. There are issues with those metals tarnishing or causing skin irritation over the long term.

A new approach fights fire with fire. ESA is working with Vienna Textile Lab, a company that uses bacteria to produce fabric dyes. "Those microorganisms produce so-called secondary metabolites," ESA said.  "These compounds are typically colorful, and some exhibit versatile properties: antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal." 

Bacterma will focus on developing these antimicrobial textile finishes and testing how they react to perspiration, radiation and dust that simulate conditions astronauts will encounter in orbit and on the surface of the moon. 

"It might sound counterintuitive to get rid of microbes using the products of microbes, but all kinds of organisms use secondary metabolites to protect themselves from extreme environmental conditions," said Bacterma project scientist Seda Özdemir-Fritz of the Austrian Space Forum.

If the new fabric technology works, it could make the sharing of space undies much more pleasant.

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