NASA has revealed its next prototype spacesuit, the Z-2, a glowing electroluminescent suit that the space agency will use to test technologies for its eventual manned mission to Mars. Rather than the Buzz Lightyear style of the first Z-1 spacesuit, from back in late 2012, the Z-2 version looks almost medievally inspired, thanks to the barrel-chested torso section.
Where the Z-1 had a soft torso, the Z-2 switches that for a hard composite, which would be more durable for long-term Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on a planet like Mars. It’s marked with a selection of electroluminescent panels, one of three designs which NASA threw open to the public to decide upon; dubbed the “Technology” design, the illumination is intended to make identifying different crew members and skills more straightforward.
However, while they may be the most obvious elements, other parts of the suit have been altered considerably too. The shoulder and hip joints, for instance, have been completely reworked to improve mobility, and the design of the boots is said to be far more akin to something that could operate on a distant planet.
In fact, though, the Z-2 will never actually see space – or, indeed, any sort of flight. Despite the fact that the materials it’s made from are “compatible with a full-vacuum environment,” NASA says, the perilous environments it’ll be tested with will all be on Earth.
That’s not to say it’ll have an easy time of it. The Z-2 will be tested in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab – NASA’s huge pool at the Jonson Space Center which simulates weightlessness – as well as in vacuum chambers to see how it handles full and partial vacuum.
There’ll also be tests on a replica Martian surface to see if the suit is agile enough, as well as comfortable enough for what is likely to be a long-term mission.
Still, the outer layer will have to count on its shininess to dissuade micro-meteorites and radiation, since it’s not yet being made with the sort of extreme requirements that a space-going suit would demand.
The testing – expected to begin by November 2014 – will help shape the third iteration of the suit, the Z-3, which will be just another step in the Advanced Exploration Systems Division’s work to prep astronauts for a Mars mission.
Exactly when that mission will take place is uncertain. Some experts expect it to happen within the next twenty years, though NASA itself has warned that budget cuts and even rules about damaging alien ecosystems could undermine the whole thing.