New intelligent materials for future space suits
All space agencies are preparing for a return of humans to the Moon in the near future!
In this context, the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched the PEXTEX project, which stands for “Planetary EXploration TEXtiles”. The project’s objective is to identify new materials and textiles capable of withstanding the hostile environments of the Moon and Mars for use in future space suits.
Why this project?
50 years after the Apollo missions, human space exploration is on the cusp of a new era, with the European Space Agency (ESA) and its international partners working towards the return of humans to the Moon. The goal of future missions is to establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface. In this context, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the “PEXTEX” project, which stands for “Planetary EXploration TEXtiles”.
The objective of the project was to identify new materials and textiles capable of withstanding the hostile environments of the Moon and Mars for the future European space suit. Signed on January 17, 2019, the study, which will span several years, was entrusted to COMEX SAS as coordinator and its European partners, the Germans from DITF and the Austrians from OeWF.
The project aims to identify new innovative and extremely robust materials, in addition to the materials already existing in space suits. This is to protect against dangers, but also to analyze the environment, monitor the health of astronauts, etc. The possibilities are numerous. For example, on the lunar surface, there are micrometeorite showers; the search for textiles capable of maintaining their structural integrity is a major challenge, given the disastrous consequences that a tear in a space suit could cause!
To achieve this, and to be better adapted to this environment, the study will identify materials capable of resisting the many external aggressions:
The regolith, one of our worst enemies on the Moon, is as fine as talcum powder and composed of tiny silica particles, sharpened like razor blades.
Solar and cosmic radiation, our worst enemies, as it is very complicated to protect oneself from them with a space suit.
The vacuum of space
Extreme temperatures: the surface of the space suit in the sun reaches 150°C, while if it passes into the shade it drops to -170°C.
Micrometeorites, which arrive at 10 km/s and can pass through a thin aluminum plate.
The materials identified in the PEXTEX project were tested in test facilities with partner organizations in France, Germany, and Austria. A dedicated platform was designed by the COMEX team and used at the Marseille site for specific testing under ultravacuum conditions.
The closing conference was conducted by COMEX in late March 2023, at the technical headquarters of the ESA (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. About twenty European experts were present, and two ESA astronauts even had the pleasure of participating. In fact, these European astronauts are potential candidates to wear a space suit and explore the Moon.
The identification and testing of such materials will serve to develop future European space suits for extravehicular activities (EVA) on the lunar (and Martian) surface. These space suits will need to be designed to withstand longer and more frequent surface operations than during the Apollo period.
This project is part of ESA’s exploration strategy to return to the Moon in the coming decades, just like the development of GATEWAY, the future lunar orbit space station. This station will serve as a “base camp” for conducting robotic and human missions on the lunar surface. COMEX also participated in this project for ESA in partnership with Airbus, as part of the development of one of the modules of this space station, the European module “ESPRIT.”
In conclusion, materials were identified, manufactured, and then tested in facilities in France, Germany, and Austria. A special COMEX machine was designed for testing under ultravacuum conditions. European astronauts also participated in the project’s closing conference. The identified materials will be used for the development of future European space suits for extravehicular activities on the lunar and Martian surfaces. The PEXTEX project is part of ESA’s exploration strategy to develop future lunar bases on the Moon and the future international space station in cislunar orbit, GATEWAY.
Special COMEX machine dedicated to ultravacuum testing &
Final Meeting – European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC)