NASA has revealed the design for its next prototype spacesuit to be used for Mars missions. The prototype, dubbed Z-2, offers better mobility and, unlike current spacewalking suits, is designed to handle the red planet's harsh environment.
NASA chose the Z-2's look based on votes from visitors to a website dedicated to the new spacesuit. The site gave voters three concept designs from which to choose, dubbed "technology," "biomimicry," and "trends in society." All three designs were created by suit vendor ILC and Philadelphia University. The biomimicry design depicts a suit that emulates the bioluminescent qualities of aquatic creatures. The trends suit reflects how everyday clothes might look in the future. However, it was the Tron-like technology design that won following 233,431 public votes.
The Z-2 is the latest prototype in NASA's next-generation spacesuit platform, called the Z-series. The Z-2 builds on the previous prototype of the Z-1 suit. It is the first "surface-specific planetary mobility suit" to be tested in a complete vacuum, and to use 3D human laser scans and 3D-printed hardware, according to NASA. Additionally, it has impact-resistant composite structures on the upper and lower torso. It's the most re-sizeable hard-upper-torso suit built so far.
Another big difference between the two prototypes is the materials they're made of. The Z-1 had a soft upper torso, while the Z-2 has a hard composite upper torso. NASA said the hard upper torso offers long-term durability that a planetary extra-vehicular activity (EVA) suit requires. The shoulder and hip designs also differ. The Z-2 has several improvements that take into account the movement of complex joints.
The materials used on the Z-2 are intended for a full-vacuum environment. NASA is currently planning a comprehensive test campaign for Z-2 to see how it performs in an environment that mimics the lack of atmosphere found in space. The suit will be tested at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, an indoor pool that NASA uses to train astronauts to spacewalk. NASA will conduct further testing at a rocky Martian-surface analog site at the Johnson Space Center to evaluate the suit's performance.
The final version of the suit is expected to be ready for testing by November. Lessons learned from the tests will then be used to design the Z-3.
NASA has set an ambitious goal to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, so developing a spacesuit for that mission is on the agency's list of priorities. However, the Z-series prototype is still in a non-flight phase, which means it won't be making a trip to space just yet. Click through our slideshow to learn more about the spacesuit's design and capabilities.