Astroskin: One small step toward Mars

The effortless floating of an astronaut is a sensation many have certainly imagined since man began to explore outer space. Everybody’s dreamed of flight.

However, putting a human being thousands of kilometres above the surface of the earth in a weightless, oxygen-free environment carries with it health risks and complications that need to be meticulously understood and prepared for.

Enter Astroskin.

In collaboration with researchers at l’Université de Québec a Montréal (UQAM) and Carré Technologies that developed the “smart clothing”, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is currently testing Astroskin in Antarctica.

The XPantarctik team from right to left: Francois Mailhot, Samuel Ostiguy, Alexandre Byette, Emmanuelle Dumas, Caroline Cote, Marina Lancon

A team of eight is on a 45-day trek called XPantarctik to the bottom of the world to mimic some of the harsh realities of space travel. Six of them are on land, climbing the highest peaks in the area and exploring uncharted territory while two members wait and monitor them from the boat.

A look at the Astroskin.

Each expedition member is wearing what looks like a plain, sleeveless workout shirt. But, the shirt is in fact doing much more than providing another layer of clothing. Using sensors that are woven into the fabric of the Astroskin, UQAM graduate student Andrée Anne Parent is able to monitor the team’s heart and respiration rates, skin temperatures, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure and more.

“We can have someone wearing that equipment that doesn’t feel anything and that can do the work they have to do in their natural environment,” says Professor Jean P. Boucher from the department of kinanthropology at UQAM. He’s one of two professors who are supervising the operation from here in Canada.

What sets the shirt apart from the competition is not the information that’s being recorded, but how. Sensors have been able to measure these things before, but not all in one piece of fabric that uses silver threads instead of carbon or rubber, and that is able to relay that information to any location.

“The idea is to report on the efficacy of that technology, how comfortable it is, how easy it is to wear and collect data. When they come back we have a full research project to do in the labs here on the validity of the data collected by the Astroskin,” says Boucher.

*Start above video at 1:20

Professor Rafik Goubran, dean of the faculty of engineering and design at Carleton University has worked extensively with sensors, particularly in the biomedical field. He says he feels very fortunate to be working with digital signals and sensors because of the rapid progress in the field.

“Lots of technologies can be combined together to give you very reliable information about the vital signs – not just one vital sign, because they’re all correlated to one another,” says Goubran.

“There’s a huge possibility here to do data analytics, which is correlating all this data together, analyzing it, and making sense out of it,” he said when asked about smart clothing and Astroskin in particular.

“I’m extremely positive about the potential for having more and more of these sensors to monitor our activity on a regular basis.”

‘The lack of gravity in space is the worst enemy,’ — Jean P. Boucher

When Chris Hadfield returned from a 5-month long mission in May 2013, he claimed to be “tottering around like an old man” and belonged in an old folks home as he got used to gravity again. Meant to withstand and compensate for gravity’s weight here on Earth, the human body isn’t designed for a long stay in outer space.

“The lack of gravity in space is the worst enemy, that’s why they do all sorts of exercise and that’s why they want to track the physiology. The lack of gravity will have a very disastrous effect on the bony system, they lose a lot of minerals. You have severe muscle atrophy, you have bone depletion,” says Boucher.

Blood pressure increases and the heart struggles to pump blood all the way to one’s feet without gravity’s help, so the legs can become skinny and weak. The sensors responsible for muscle contractions and reflexes, and those for equilibrium in our inner ear are useless in space, says professor Boucher.

Enter Astroskin.

By knowing when an astronaut is sick due to skin temperature or heart rate signals, for example, more can be known about the physiological factors during space sickness, or about other episodes like headaches and disorientation.

‘The plan is that, in due time when the technology is ready, the CSA will bring that technology to NASA to be able to have the technology in space.’ — Jean P. Boucher

“Having good measurement is the basis of developing good counter-measures or good training or treatment programs,” says Boucher, referring to new technologies, exercises or resistance training that could help with the issues created by weightlessness in space.

An XPantarctik team member scales a cliff.

An XPantarctik team member scales a cliff.

“That’s usually the weak point in training or treatment, so to start with good data is key. That’s one thing the Astroskin should be able to give us in due time.”

The goal is to find out what needs to be done to accommodate 6-month or longer trips to Mars or the moon. While the idea may be more science fiction than science at this point, technology like Astroskin could be instrumental in understanding what needs to be done to counteract physiological issues.

“With the data coming from XPantarctik, we’ll sit down with the CSA and with Carré Technologies to see what’s next,” says Boucher. Alterations and improvements will almost certainly be made.

“The plan is that, in due time when the technology is ready, the CSA will bring that technology to NASA to be able to have the technology in space.”


Comments are closed.