Future explorers on the Moon and Mars could be outfitted in lightweight, high-tech spacesuits that offer far more flexibility than the bulky suits that have been used for spacewalks in the 1960s.

Research is under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a Bio-Suit System that incorporates a suit designed to augment a person’s biological skin by providing mechanical counter-pressure. The “epidermis” of such a second skin could be applied in spray-on fashion in the form of an organic, biodegradable layer.

This coating would protect an astronaut conducting a spacewalk in extremely dusty planetary environments. Incorporated into that second skin would be electrically actuated artificial muscle fibers to enhance human strength and stamina.

The Bio-Suit System could embody communications equipment, biosensors, computers, even climbing gear for spacewalks or what NASA calls an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA).

“When we get back to the Moon and on Mars, we’re not going there to stay in a habitat,” said Dava Newman, professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems here at MIT. “EVA becomes … a primary function,” she said.

Newman is leading the Bio-Suit System work, assisted by researchers Kristen Bethke, Christopher Carr, Nicole Jordan, and Liang Sim in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems. The study is multi-pronged and is intended to better calibrate astronaut performance, explore improvements to current spacesuit designs and generate novel ideas for a new generation of space exploration suits.

The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, headquartered in Atlanta, is sponsoring the Bio-Suit System effort.

“We need to shrink-wrap the astronaut,” Newman said. “It would be like wearing a second skin.”

The Bio-Suit System, Newman said, would provide life support through mechanical counter pressure where pressure is applied to the entire body through a tight-fitting suit with a pressurized helmet for the head. Ongoing research is targeted at understanding, simulating, and predicting capabilities of suited astronauts in a variety of scenarios — be they performing simple motions or more complex movement, such as overhead or cross-body reach, stepping up, or trudging across an exotic landscape.

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