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ESA seeks ways to make spacesuit underclothes more hygienic

July 12th, 2021 / By: / In the Industry

The European Space Agency (ESA) is working on a more hygienic kind of underclothing worn by astronauts in their spacesuits. The ESA reports that the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) will work with the Vienna Textile Lab on the BACTeRMA project to test textiles with improved anti-bacterial properties for spacesuits used on long-duration space missions.

As much as space travel is a high-tech enterprise, doing laundry is all but impossible. On the International Space Station (ISS), for example, where crew members live for months at a time, the personnel have to carry along enough clothes to last them the entire stay on the ISS. Sharing with other crew members only makes the necessity less attractive. 

The Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG) presents particular problems. Worn with the NASA spacesuit called the External Mobility Unit (EMU), the two parts were originally developed for the Space Shuttle program, and are now standard equipment on the space station.

The EMU is made up of several components in different sizes, which can be swapped around to fit individual astronauts. Underneath this, however, a disposable Maximum Absorbency Garment is issued to each astronaut, which is, more or less, a diaper. Each astronaut also gets a personal Thermal Comfort Undergarment to prevent chafing.

The LCVG, which is a vital part of the ensemble, is worn over the undergarment.  This tight-fitting, loose-woven jumpsuit is lined with plastic tubes to circulate water that is cooled or heated to keep the astronaut safe and comfortable. This garment is extremely efficient, but like the EMU itself, the LCVG has been shared between among spacewalking astronauts and can only be cleaned by returning it to Earth for an overhaul. On longer missions now being planned into deep-space, this could present a health hazard. 

The standard way of fighting bacteria is to use materials like copper or silver—effective, but also potentially toxic. The two-year BACTeRMA project is looking at secondary metabolites, which are produced by bacteria as an end product of metabolic processes, yet have antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties. 

“Spaceflight textiles, especially when subject to biological contamination—for example, spacesuit underwear—may pose both engineering and medical risks during long duration flights,” says ESA material engineer Malgorzata Holynska. 

“We are already investigating candidate materials for outer spacesuit layers, so this early technology development project is a useful complement, looking into small bacteria-killing molecules that may be useful for all kinds of spaceflight textiles, including spacesuit interiors,” Holynska says.