July 18, 2024

Safeguarding Lunar Spacesuits: Innovative Approaches to Tackle Microbial Growth

3 min read

In the relentless pursuit of human habitation on the Moon, the challenge of maintaining cleanliness within spacesuits has emerged as a critical concern. As future astronauts prepare to explore the lunar surface, they will rely on a new generation of spacesuits designed to withstand the harsh lunar environment, thanks to the European Space Agency’s (ESA) PExTex project. While these cutting-edge spacesuits offer safety and comfort, they also present a potential conducive environment for harmful microbial growth, especially when multiple astronauts may share the same suits.

To address this issue, the PExTex project is actively evaluating suitable textiles for future spacesuit designs. In collaboration with the Austrian Space Forum, they have launched the BACTeRMA project, which aims to develop ways to prevent microbial growth within the inner linings of spacesuits.

Venturing onto the lunar surface poses significant risks, given the “hard vacuum, wild temperature extremes, space radiation, and highly abrasive dust” that can all have detrimental effects on spacesuits. The challenges faced during the Apollo era, like moon dust partially jamming the seals of spacesuits, highlight the importance of advancing spacesuit technology.

Modern solutions include incorporating high-strength Twaron material, a revolutionary development since the time of the Apollo missions. Under the leadership of France’s Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX), the PExTex project has extensively tested these materials to create spacesuits capable of enduring at least 2,500 hours of surface use. Rigorous testing at the German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) involved “ultra-high vacuum exposure, electrical discharge, temperature shifts, and rubbing with simulated moondust,” along with nuclear accelerator radiation experiments at Austria’s MedAustron facility.

Concurrently, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF) has focused on ensuring the safety of spacesuit interiors. To achieve this, they have embraced the Biocidal Advanced Coating Technology for Reducing Microbial Activity, or BACTeRMA. The ultimate goal is to develop spacesuits that can effectively inhibit the growth of microorganisms.

Keeping the insides of spacesuits clean presents unique challenges. ESA’s materials and processes engineer, Malgorzata Holynska, explains that washing spacesuit interiors on the Moon or beyond may not be practical due to resource constraints. Moreover, spacesuits will likely be shared among different astronauts and stored for extended periods, creating favorable conditions for microbial growth. As a result, innovative alternatives were sought to prevent such issues.

Traditional materials like silver or copper were ruled out due to concerns over potential skin irritation and tarnishing. Instead, the BACTeRMA team turned to “secondary metabolites,” chemical compounds produced by microbes that often possess antibiotic properties. Working in conjunction with the Vienna Textile Lab, they developed textile processing techniques that incorporate these bacterial metabolites.

As humanity inches closer to realizing its lunar aspirations, the success of projects like PExTex and BACTeRMA are crucial in ensuring the safety and longevity of future lunar missions. By harnessing cutting-edge materials and innovative approaches, scientists and engineers are striving to provide astronauts with spacesuits that are not only durable but also resistant to the hazards of microbial growth on the Moon’s surface. These advancements will undoubtedly pave the way for unprecedented achievements in human space exploration and colonization.