The votes are in with NASA announcing the winner of its Z-2 spacesuit design challenge. For the challenge, the public was invited to choose one of three alternative designs for a new prototype spacesuit with the “Technology” option winning with 233,431 votes, or about 63 percent of the total vote. The Technology design will now be used in the completed Z-2 suit as part of NASA’s project to create a new spacesuit for the exploration of Mars.
The Z-2 is that latest in the Z-series of spacesuit prototypes created for NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division. The goal is to develop a new suit, through a number of iterations, that can be used for a manned mission to Mars. The Z-2 is not itself a flightworthy suit and will not be sent into space because it lacks the specific high-performance materials and design details needed for working outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
The challenge allowed the public to vote for one of three versions of the Z-2 cover layer, each of which was designed by Philadelphia University and the primary suit vendor, ILC Dover. Each of these designs highlighted a mobility characteristic, as well as including electroluminescent wiring, which has never been used on a spacesuit before. NASA hopes that the wiring will help in space crew identification.
The cover layer is the outermost layer of a spacesuit that protects the lower layers and spacesuit components from snagging and abrasion. In a fully operational spacesuit, the layer also protects the astronaut against micrometeorites, heat, cold, and radiation. NASA also admits that it makes the suit look better.
According to NASA, the Z-2 has a number of improvements over the earlier Z-1, which has been the subject of two years of evaluations. The Z-2 has a hard composite upper torso for greater durability, the shoulder and hip joints are more mobile, and the boots are more like those that would be found on a space-ready suit. In addition, the Z-2 can withstand a full-vacuum during testing.
The winning Technology design, as the name implies, harkens back to more conventional spacesuits, but with some sci-fi elements added, such as Luminex wire and light-emitting patches for crew identification. It also has exposed rotating bearings, collapsing pleats for mobility and highlighted movement, and abrasion-resistant panels on the lower torso.
NASA says that the Z-2 will be completed by November and will be tested at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, which simulates weightless conditions using a swimming pool, then on a simulated Martian surface. The engineers will evaluate the Z-2’s mobility, comfort and performance, as well as subjecting it to multiple vacuum chamber tests with pressures down to that of a full vacuum. The results of the tests will then be used in designing the Z-3.