When NASA’s Perseverance Rover heads for Mars this summer, it will also carry the first samples of spacesuit material ever sent to the Red Planet.
According to spacesuit designer Amy Ross, understanding what kind of suits to wear on Mars will prove critical as the planet’s thin atmosphere allows more radiation from the Sun and cosmic rays to reach the ground.
And so while the rover explores Jezero Crater – the landing site for NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, five small pieces of spacesuit material will be studied by an instrument aboard Perseverance called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals).
“The materials we’re poking at the most are meant to be on the outer layer of a suit, since these will be exposed to the most radiation,” explains Ross.
“There’s ortho-fabric, something we have a lot of experience using on the outside of spacesuits. That’s three materials in one: It includes Nomex, a flame-resistant material found in firefighter outfits; Gore-Tex, which is waterproof but breathable; and Kevlar, which has been used in bulletproof vests.”
“We are also testing a sample of Vectran on its own, which we currently use for the palms of spacesuit gloves.”
“It’s cut-resistant, which is useful on the International Space Station: Micrometeoroids strike handrails outside the station, creating pits with sharp edges that can cut gloves.”
Teflon too forms a part of these samples; it has been used in spacesuits for a long time as part of astronaut glove gauntlets and the backs of gloves.
The scientists have also included a sample of Teflon with a dust-resistant coating to gauge Mars’ dust storms.
A piece of polycarbonate completes the spacesuit material samples; it is used for helmet bubbles and visors because it helps reduce ultraviolet light.
A salient feature about this material is that it doesn’t shatter; if impacted, it bends rather than breaks and still has good optical properties.
“On Mars, radiation will break down the chemical composition of the materials, weakening their tensile strength,” explains Ross.
“We want to figure out how long these materials will last. Do we need to develop new materials, or will these hang in there?”
SHERLOC is not only trained to get the spectra – or composition – of Mar’s rocks but also of the spacesuit materials.
According to Ross, they have already tested the materials on Earth, bathing samples in radiation and then analyzing their spectra.
The results of those tests will be compared to what the scientists see on Mars.
Protecting the suit from Martian dust over a long-duration mission will also prove integral to the Perseverance study, notes Ross:
“We know that a coated or film material will be better than a woven material that has space between the woven yarns.”
“The two Teflon samples let us look at that as well as the performance of the dust-resistant coating.”
Image and content: NASA