Astronauts can become queasy, disoriented, and confused in the zero-gravity environment of space that can turn a regular spacewalk into a dangerous expedition.
The fear of being lost in space might seem like fictional stuff, which takes place only in movies like Gravity. It is, however, an immensely scary scenario for any astronaut to imagine, especially when they are on a routine extravehicular activity.
In such circumstances, even operating a jetpack and getting back to safety can be a challenging prospect.
To ensure the safety of astronauts in space, a team of engineers at Draper Laboratory has recently patented a “Take Me Home” button. It will be integrated into the space suits of astronauts and enable them to automatically propel back to safety if they are separated from the International Space Station.
Take Me Home Button
The current spacesuit used by astronauts has no automatic navigation solution, which can be challenging during emergencies, according to Séamus Tuohy who is the director of space systems at Draper Laboratory.
The research team of engineers had to overcome various challenges to successfully design a self-return spacesuit. It needed to have the ability to determine a precise location in space’s harsh environment where GPS is not available.
The team also had to ensure that the button could not only calculate an optimal return trajectory that accounted for clearance, safety, oxygen consumption, and time requirements, but also efficiently guide a disoriented, and perhaps unconscious, astronaut back to safety.
The Take Me Home button system can autonomously work the jetpack or provide directions to an astronaut with the combination of sensory, auditory, and visual cues through a helmet visor display and a web of sensors.
Draper's current research into spacesuits, which was funded by NASA, is a part of the company's growing portfolio of human-centered solutions. Applications, like the ones used on the Take Me Home system, could also be helpful for skydivers hurtling toward Earth, firefighters navigating rooms filled with smoke or disoriented scuba divers in deep waters.
At present, astronauts on the space station reportedly use technologies like SAFER to keep them safe during a spacewalk, in addition to being tethered to the ISS at all times. SAFER is a jet backpack that can guide astronauts back to the station, in the unlikely event of a disconnection.
It, however, has to be controlled manually with the help of a box attached to the spacesuit, which can become complicated if an astronaut gets disoriented. Operating SAFER also needs many hours of training in virtual reality at ground level.
“Without a fail-proof way to return to the spacecraft, an astronaut is at risk of the worst-case scenario: lost in space,” said Draper space systems engineer, Kevin Duda, while explaining the benefits of the Take Me Home system. “Giving astronauts a sense of direction and orientation in space is a challenge because there is no gravity and no easy way to determine which way is up and down. Our technology improves mission success in space by keeping the crew safe.”