Antimicrobial spacesuits could solve astronauts’ laundry problems.

Antimicrobial spacesuits could solve astronauts' laundry problems.

Upgraded Spacesuits: Keeping Astronauts Clean and Safe in Space

Bacteria

Wardrobe malfunctions are never fun. When on Earth, they might be a nuisance or prove somewhat embarrassing. In space, however, they could be a matter of life and death. Not to mention, how do you handle, uhm, laundry on the Moon?

The European Space Agency (ESA) is on a mission to ensure that the next generation of lunar explorers will be kitted with a wholly upgraded set of spacesuits. And textile tech has come quite a way since the iconic string of Apollo missions in the ’60s and ’70s.

The Challenges of Spacesuit Design

Other than having to stand up to an extra-terrestrial environment characterized by high vacuum, radiation, extreme temperatures, and space dust, spacesuits are also subject to good old-fashioned germs. As we gear up to send humans to the Moon for the first time in over 50 years, ESA is conducting a project called PExTex to assess suitable materials for future spacesuit designs.

Violacein pigment produced by bacteria

Keeping Your Underwear Clean, in Space

It is joined by the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF), leading a sub-project called BACTeRMA, trying to find ways of limiting microbial growth in the inner lining of the material. “Think about keeping your underwear clean; it’s an easy enough job on a daily basis, thanks to detergent, washing machines and dryers,” says ESA materials and processes engineer Malgorzata Holynska. “But in habitats on the Moon or beyond, washing spacesuit interiors consistently may well not be practical.”

In addition to the impracticality of regular washing, spacesuits will most probably be shared between different astronauts and stored for long periods between use, potentially in favorable conditions for microorganisms. Therefore, alternative solutions are needed to avoid microbial growth.

The researchers had to forego traditional antimicrobial materials such as copper and silver as they are likely to tarnish over time and cause discomfort. The team then turned to “secondary metabolites,” organic compounds produced by plants, fungi, and microorganisms. These compounds, not directly involved in basic cellular processes, possess antibiotic qualities and protect from pathogens and other organisms.

Austrian Textile Startup Leads the Way

To work out the details of actually integrating these materials onto fabric, the OeWF has enlisted the help of the Vienna Textile Lab. This Austrian startup focuses on developing organic colors for textiles using microbes and possesses a unique “bacteriographic” collection.

The collaboration between the OeWF and Vienna Textile Lab has resulted in the development of various “biocidal textile processing techniques.” One such technique is dying cloth with the metabolites and then exposing them to both human perspiration and other stressors they will encounter in space.

These newly developed fabrics are currently being integrated into a spacesuit simulator and are scheduled to undergo field testing in March 2024.

The Importance of Bacteria in Space

Where humans go, bacteria will follow. Many of these microorganisms are vital to life on Earth and may also become crucial for producing rocket fuel and manufacturing food on longer space missions to Mars. However, some species can be downright nasty little buggers, causing food poisoning and other health issues. There is even evidence that some bacteria can survive in the harsh environment of space for years.

Keeping harmful bacteria at bay is crucial to a successful space mission. NASA puts a lot of effort into identifying microbes that might hitch a ride on spaceships heading out to orbit and continuously monitors bacterial activity on the International Space Station (ISS). In fact, some teeny-tiny astronauts are intentionally brought along for space microbiology research.

In conclusion, the development of improved spacesuits equipped with antimicrobial materials is essential for the success and safety of future space missions. ESA’s PExTex project and the collaboration with the Vienna Textile Lab are paving the way for innovative solutions to keep astronauts clean and protected in the unforgiving environment of space. With these advancements, we can boldly explore new frontiers, while still keeping our underwear clean.