ESA Seeks New Spacesuit Material for Lunar Astronauts. But It Has to Be the Right Stuff.

Eugene Cernan returned to the lunar module covered with moon dust.
NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan returned to the lunar module covered in moon dust during the Apollo 17 mission.
(Image: © NASA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) is searching for potential spacesuit materials that would best protect future lunar astronauts from the inhospitable conditions of the moon. 

On Jan. 19, the Paris-based intergovernmental organization signed a two-year agreement with Comex and its partners the German Institute of Textile Technology and Process Engineering and the Austrian Space Forum to investigate not only existing spacesuit materials but also more nascent innovations with useful properties such as self-healing capabilities, dust repellence and integrated circuitry. 

"The identification and test of such materials could serve the development of future European spacesuits for spacewalks on the moon and is in line with ESA's exploration strategy to return to the moon in the coming decades," ESA officials said in a statement

The project, dubbed Pextex, will commence with a workshop in May to discuss potential materials. 

As ESA officials noted, any plan to establish a permanent lunar base hinges on the creation of a rugged garment that astronauts can wear longer, more frequently and more reliably than the moon suits of old. 

Materials for a spacesuit must be able to withstand temperatures that can swing from minus 274 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 170 degrees Celsius) in darkness to 248 F (120 C) in sunlight, ESA officials said. They must be able to stand up to the lunar vacuum for at least 2,500 hours, resist lunar radiation and protect against abrasive lunar soil, which house nanosize bubbles of glass from high-velocity collisions with micrometeoroids. 

The ideal lunar spacesuit, ESA officials said, would be able to remediate any electrostatic buildup and provide electromagnetic protection for 8 or more hours. It must also be nontoxic and nonflammable, impermeable to water and fluids and able to bend 180 degrees. 

ESA and its international collaborators, including NASA, are working to return humans to the moon in the mid-to-late 2020s by way of a lunar space station known as the Deep Space Gateway, which will serve as both a halfway point and a base camp for expeditions to the surface below, including the proposed robot-driven Heracles mission. 

"The materials that will be identified in the frame of the Pextex project will be tested in test facilities with the partner organizations in France, Germany and Austria," ESA officials said. 

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