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MIT to Use the ISS to Test Smart, Electronic Textiles for Use in Spacesuits and Spacecraft

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 22, 2020
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STS-134 Mission Specialist (MS-3) Andrew Feustel working to install a new MISSE on the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier 2 during the first session of Extravehicular Activity (EVA-1). (Credit: NASA)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CASIS PR) — Space can be a dangerous place for astronauts and spacecraft, with harsh conditions and orbital debris that travels at incredibly high speeds. However, imagine a warning system that could be stitched into the fibers of spacesuits or integrated into the exterior of spacecraft that could detect debris impacts and send an early hazard alert.

This is the goal of a new study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The MIT team will embed sensor fibers into conventional spacesuit materials and expose them to the extreme elements of space outside of the International Space Station (ISS) to evaluate the durability and performance of the fibers.

This investigation was awarded through an ISS U.S. National Laboratory solicitation for flight experiments in the field of advanced materials science and engineering and will use the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) Flight Facility, an in-orbit platform from Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance deployed externally onboard the ISS.

Testing Smart Fibers in Space

The MIT research team developed piezoelectric fibers that act as sensors and can be stitched into conventional textiles. These fibers send an electrical signal in response to mechanical stress such as bending or the impact of orbital debris. The team will stitch their piezoelectric fibers into the fiberglass and Teflon fabrics (called Beta cloth) used for early spacesuits and inflatable space habitats.

These textile samples will be launched to the ISS and mounted outside the station on the MISSE Flight Facility. For six months, the samples will be exposed to atomic oxygen, ultraviolet radiation, and orbital debris impacts to determine whether the fibers can withstand the rigors of space and whether they can successfully detect debris impacts.

From Early Warnings in Space to Wearable Electronics on Earth

Space is filled with debris traveling at hyper velocities—faster than a bullet—particularly in the low Earth orbit in which the ISS operates. While large debris can be tracked, small debris (less than 10 centimeters) travel undetected and could number in the tens of millions, creating a minefield in which astronauts must operate. This is one of the factors that makes spacewalks dangerous.

The piezoelectric fibers developed by the MIT team would provide early warning detection of debris impact to crew or to spacecraft and satellite structures. Networks of these fiber sensors could be integrated into spacesuits or the exterior of structural spacecraft and satellites to provide hazard warnings of debris impact counts and frequency.

While space-based applications using such fibers are still under development and would not be available until sometime in the future, textiles with integrated electronics are becoming increasingly common on Earth today. These “smart” textiles are being used to make pieces of clothing that provide valuable information or electronic services to the person wearing them. For example, there are items of clothing that can provide a Bluetooth connection to your phone, monitor your health and vitals, or detect ultraviolet radiation exposure.

The technology developed by the MIT research team could also be applied to wearable smart fabrics on Earth to enable energy harvesting from kinetic energy as people move through their day or to provide insight into the stress and impact experienced by our bodies during work, sports, or exploration.

“The MIT research team is expanding the limits of textile functionality,” said Dr. Ryan Reeves, program director of advanced materials at the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, manager of the ISS National Lab. “By integrating piezoelectric sensors into conventional fibers, textiles can be made multifunctional, with applications ranging from advanced warning detection in space suits to battery charging workout clothing.”