Space is a very dangerous place. Spacecraft are fragile environments for astronauts with many potentially threats to their safety. As dangerous as spacecraft may be, even more dangerous to astronauts are spacewalks where they exit the spacecraft in special spacesuits. One of the biggest concerns is the possibility that some thing could go wrong with the spacesuit and leave that astronaut stranded is space with no way to get back to the spacecraft. Researchers at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, a company located in Cambridge, MA are working on the problem.
The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory is a not-for-profit research and development organization. They specialize in “design, development, and deployment of advanced technology solutions to problems in national security, space exploration, health care and energy.” Draper staff have expertise in the areas “…of guidance, navigation, and control technologies and systems; fault-tolerant computing; advanced algorithms and software solutions; modeling and simulation; and microelectromechanical systems and multichip module technology.”
Draper scientists filed a patent last December for a spacesuit that will guarantee that astronauts on spacewalks will always be able to get back to their spacecraft safely. Keven Duda, a space systems engineer at Draper, has been studying astronauts on the International Space Station. Duda and his team have developed a “self-return” system that can return an astronaut to a spacecraft with no external assistance.
If an astronaut encounters problems on a spacewalk, the astronaut, another crew member on the spacecraft or someone on the ground can trigger a system of thrusters built into the suit which will autonomously send the suit with the astronaut back to a predetermined safe location. A reporter for TechCrunch says, "It's designed around the challenges of navigating in outer space, where there is no GPS, and it has to take into account conditions that might impact survivability, including remaining oxygen level and fuel available for the thrusters. In the zero-gravity environment of space, astronauts can become confused, disoriented.”
Manual return systems have been developed but, considering the problems of disorientation or injury, Draper concluded that an automated system was needed. Such a system has to be able to determine the exact location of the suit with no GPS. Next it has to compute a return trajectory while taking into account time required, estimated oxygen consumption for the trip, and, finally, safety and clearance requirements to reach the spacecraft and dock successfully. And it may have to do all this without any input from the astronaut who may be unconscious.
Draper believes that there are other potential applications of their patent beyond returning astronauts to safety. Draper researchers say, “Applications in the design of navigation systems like Draper's 'take me home' system could serve as an added safety measure for first responders and firefighters as they navigate smoke-filled rooms, skydivers hurtling toward Earth and scuba divers who might become disoriented in deep water.” The patent discussion says, “the self-return system may be implemented in the suit of a free-falling skydiver and be configured to assist the sky diver in controlling her freefall to land in a desired location if the skydiver became disoriented.”