Six teams are cracking their knuckles and getting ready to compete in the first ever Astronaut Glove Challenge, one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges. The goal of the $250,000 competition, which will be held on 2 and 3 May, is to spur innovation to design more flexible spacesuit gloves.
Gloves are possibly the most important part of the spacesuit from an astronaut’s perspective. In addition to cranking levers and handling power drills, astronauts use their hands – rather than their feet – as their primary mode of "walking" around the International Space Station (ISS).
Current gloves use two inner layers – a rubbery balloon-like layer surrounded by cloth to help keep the glove’s shape – and an outer shield that protects against micrometeoroids and orbital debris and insulates the hands against the extreme temperatures of space.
The gloves are pressurised, making it difficult for the astronauts to move their fingers. As a result, they often do hand-strengthening exercises to prepare for spacewalks, which can last six hours or more. The labour-intensive spacewalks often leave astronauts’ hands bruised and pinched and their fingernails bent backwards.
So NASA has gone outside the usual big aerospace companies to drum up new ideas for building a better glove. Up for grabs is $250,000 in prize money – $200,000 for a ‘bladder restraint’ glove competition and $50,000 for a ‘mechanical counterpressure’ glove competition.
A bladder restraint is similar to the inner two layers of today’s spacesuit gloves: a rubbery layer surrounded by cloth. Mechanical counterpressure gloves, on the other hand, would be elastically fitted to the body like a second skin.
Alan Hayes, chairman and CEO of Volanz Aerospace in Owings, Maryland, US, which is administering the contest, says no one is entering the mechanical counterpressure challenge this year, so that prize money will roll over into next year’s pot. He gives the six teams entering the bladder restraint competition equal chances of winning the contest.
On Wednesday, competitors will bring two identical gloves to the competition, which will be held at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, US. Their gloves will be measured and weighed, and then one of the pair will undergo a "burst challenge", wherein the glove will be pumped full of water until it springs a leak. Organisers will measure the water pressure at the glove’s breaking point, making this part of the competition basically a strength test for the gloves.
Later, the surviving half of the glove pair will be put through a flexibility test. The wrist end of the glove will be capped and pressurised to 0.29 atmospheres (4.3 pounds per square inch). Then, contest organisers will measure how well the glove flexes under pressure.
In addition, the contest organisers want to make sure that the gloves are comfortable. So teams will have one of their members put on the glove, which will be put in a glove box with a pressure of 71% that of the average pressure at sea level on Earth (10.4 pounds per square inch). This will replicate the pressure difference between a pressurised spacesuit and the vacuum of space.
The team member will then squeeze a ball for 30 minutes. Every five minutes, organisers will take pictures of the person’s hand to check for any abrasions, bruises, blisters or other damage.
"If blood comes dripping out of the hand, they lose that part," says Ken Davidian, who runs the Centennial Challenges for NASA. "They have no incentive to play through the pain, even though that’s what astronauts do."
In each of the tests, all of the gloves have to perform better than the existing spacesuit glove. The team with the glove that scores highest in the three tests and also beats the existing spacesuit glove will take home the $200,000 prize.
Traditionally, the first – or even the second – year a specific Centennial Challenge is held, no one walks away with the prize. So far, this has been true for the Tether
, Beam Power
and Lunar Lander
Just one week after the glove challenge, on 11 and 12 May, NASA will hold another Centennial Challenge – the Regolith Excavation Challenge. That will pit robotic scoops and diggers against each other to see which can move the most lunar dirt out of a sandbox and into a bin. The contest is designed to spur the technological innovation needed to send humans back to the Moon.
Via New Scientist