University of Delaware researchers have developed a protective material for spacesuits that solves a problem astronauts face.
They’ve been awarded a $750,000 grant to create and test a fluid-like material to help shield astronauts from destructive objects hurling through space.
Astronauts on the International Space Station often work outside in a harsh, unforgiving environment where they’re exposed to numerous threats, including small particles hurtling through space.
Norman Wagner, a chemical and bimolecular engineering professor at UD, says those particles — like tiny pieces of debris — can puncture an astronaut’s spacesuit 10 times faster than a bullet, and even the smallest rip or tear in the suit can cause an astronaut to lose oxygen.
“We’ve had a number of near misses where astronauts have had damage to their spacesuits doing spacewalks on the International Space Station,” Wagner said. “We’ve also had serious damage to the space shuttle when it was flying due to micrometeoroids and all of the debris.”
Aside from the dangers of working in space, Wagner says he surveyed astronauts and found out that the spacesuits used now are stiff and uncomfortable to wear.
“We need to be able to protect them more than they currently are, but we can’t just give them heavier suits or put more layers on them because they won’t be able to do their job,” Wagner said.
So he started thinking, “How can we fix this problem?” Wagner co-founded STF Technologies alongside UD alumnus Richard Dombrowski to create a thick fluid material for spacesuits that turns into a thicker solid when it’s punctured.
“Now imagine you can integrate that on a microscopic level, inside a fabric like Kevlar which is already a ballistic, woven material used to stop bullets,” Wagner said. “And now those fibers become solid, ceramic-like when they get hit by a bullet and they don’t get out of the way, they can absorb more of the energy…”
The thick fluid material, which Wagner calls “shear thickening fluid” is composed of nanoparticles in a fluid that flows at low rates, but becomes solid at high shear rates when it is impacted. Wagner compared it to “oobleck” — a silly putty-like substance that is a mixture of corn starch and water, that changes properties depending on how much someone pushes on it.
NASA is hoping to outfit astronauts going to Mars with a spacesuit called the Z-2 suit, created by Delaware’s own ILC Dover. ILC Dover told Delaware Public Media in March that the Z-2 suit is lightweight, flexible and can work under high pressures.
Wagner says the fluid material they’re working on at UD will take the Z-2 suit to the next level.