Spacesuits need to fulfill a lot of important functions. Keeping astronauts protected from the harsh elements of space and keeping out any suit-ruining space dust, just to name two.
But a less polite aspect of space suits is the undergarments, and just how gross they can get.
“Think about keeping your underwear clean; it’s an easy enough job on a daily basis, thanks to detergent, washing machines and dryers,” explains European Space Agency materials and processes engineer Malgorzata Holynska.
“But in habitats on the Moon or beyond, washing spacesuit interiors on a consistent basis may well not be practical.”
This would be fine, except our flesh suits don’t just house us – our skin and bits are absolutely chock-a-block with microbes.
“Spacesuits will most probably be shared between different astronauts, and stored for long periods between use, potentially in favourable conditions for microorganisms,” adds Holynska. “Instead we needed to find alternative solutions to avoid microbial growth.”
The Austrian Space Forum has been working on a solution to this problem with its project called “Biocidal Advanced Coating Technology for Reducing Microbial Activity”, or BACTeRMA.
You can’t use traditional anti-microbial materials such as silver or copper, as this would be very irritating on astronaut skin. Instead, the team looked at compounds that bacteria themselves produce to ward off other microbes – penicillin, for example.
The researchers worked with the Vienna Textile Lab to create new ways of inserting these compounds into clothes. This included dying the cloth with these bacterial metabolites, which are often colourful.
“The Austrian Space Forum is currently integrating the newly developed textiles in its spacesuit simulator,” says Gernot Grömer, the Austrian Space Forum director. “In March 2024 these materials may undergo their first analog field test as part of our simulation of a crewed Mars mission in Armenia during the AMADEE-24 field campaign.”