Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
MECHANICAL COUNTER PRESSURE
Turns out the costume designers of many classic, B-movie Sci-Fi flicks may have been on to something. Space adventurers of tomorrow may actually end up wearing snug, form-fitting spacesuits. For legitimate, practical reasons (not just fan service!).
Spacesuits need to accomplish several things: provide breathable air, regulate your body temperature, keep you pressurized…. For that last part, current space suit designs rely on air pressure. Essentially, spacesuits are human-shaped balloons filled with enough air to replicate atmospheric pressure.
In the future, spacesuits might be made of a web of “coils.” When activated (using an electrical current, perhaps) these coils would contract, morphing around all the curves and contours of your body, physically compressing you with enough pressure to simulate atmospheric pressure.
This process of being squeezed and compressed by your spacesuit is known as “mechanical counter pressure.” Parts of a mechanical counter pressure spacesuit will still have to be pressurized: the helmet, for obvious reasons, but also the gloves and boots. Mechanical counter pressure could severely damage the fine bones of the fingers, wrists, ankles, and toes.
So why would you want to wear a mechanical counter pressure suit?
- Because your spacesuit would weigh a whole lot less.
- Because your spacesuit would be a lot less bulky, giving you a wider range of motion while working in space.
- Because if your spacesuit is punctured or torn, you won’t depressurize. The coils will remain contracted.
- Because you want to look good for all the alien hunks/babes you’ll be meeting in space.
Unfortunately, mechanical counter pressure suits are still very much on the drawing board. The biggest problem seems to be getting the coils to contract and stay contracted without a continuous electric current running through them. There’s not much risk of getting electrocuted by your suit, but the continuous current would eventually make your suit hot. Very hot.
So NASA’s next generation of spacesuits will probably go in a different and less sexy direction. We’ll talk more about that next week.
P.S.: Just to clarify, when I say your spacesuit would get very hot, I’m not referring to the sexy kind of hot.
Shrink-Wrapping Spacesuits from MIT News.
Futuristic Skintight Spacesuit May Shrink-Wrap Astronauts from Space.com.
Future Spandex from TV Tropes.