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Skintight 'superhero' space suit aims to fight bone loss

John D. Sutter
A prototype space suit from MIT aims to compress astronaut skeletons, preventing bone loss in space.
A prototype space suit from MIT aims to compress astronaut skeletons, preventing bone loss in space.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • MIT space suit prototype aims to prevent astronaut bone loss
  • The suit compresses people's bodies from shoulders to ankles
  • This suit aims to replicate the effect of gravity
  • In low-gravity environments, people can lose 1 to 2 percent of bone mass per month
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(CNN) -- It's probably not great for your image if your astronaut buddies can see your boxer briefs through your stretchy space suit.

But if that same low-gravity outfit -- a prototype from MIT that looks more fit for Aquaman than beefy astronaut heroes like Buzz Aldrin -- also stops your bones from decaying and keeps your spine from abnormally elongating, then maybe it's worth the embarrassment.

Researchers from MIT's Man Vehicle Laboratory recently published a paper in the journal Acta Astronautica that details a prototype space suit called the "gravity loading countermeasure skinsuit," or GLCS for short (not that the acronym really helps).

The suit tries to replicate the force of gravity by squeezing astronauts from the shoulders to the ankles, putting pressure on their skeletons. That's important because people who spend much time in low-gravity environments experience bone loss. Leg bones, which are most susceptible because they carry so much weight on the Earth, lose about 1 to 2 percent of their mass per month in low-gravity environments, the report says.

"Painful elongation" of astronauts' spines, by up to 2.75 inches, is also possible in low-gravity environments, the report says.

That's bad news for astronauts -- and for space exploration.

"Bone loss may be the most important limiting factor for long-term space flight, due to the risk of fracture," the report says.

Cue the skintight, back-saving space suit.

It's made of elastic and woven in a way that it pulls from the shoulders and armpits. Several bands of the suit are woven into "belts" of sorts, which aim to distribute this pulling force across the body so the suit is more comfortable and so the effect of the gravity suit is more-evenly distributed.

MIT isn't the first group to think of a gravity-replicating suit. The "Penguin Suit," made by the Russian space program, is in use at the international space station now, according to the report. That suit uses bungee cords and a leather belt to create tension on a person's skeleton. The cords connect from the belt to the shoulders and also down to the feet and calves.

It's an uncomfortable setup because of the tension and because the suits get unbearably hot, says the report, authored by James Waldie from MIT and to be published in an upcoming print edition of the journal.

The new GLCS elastic suit aims to be more wearable.

The elastic wicks moisture away from the skin. "Crew members may be able to exercise, work normally or even sleep while wearing the countermeasure suit, in accordance with a wide variety of wearing protocols," the report says.

In tests, the GLCS didn't fare quite that well.

Of the three subjects who tested the prototype in a weightless environment, two said the suit would give them "minor discomfort" if they had to wear it all day, or for 16 hours; and the third said it was "too uncomfortable" to wear for more than four hours.

Reports about the suit online tended to focus on its aesthetics and lack of fashion sense as well as its workability in space.

PopSci, which first reported the story, wrote that the "Spiderman-style suit may not win astronauts a spot in the fashion hall of fame."

Wired UK called it an "extra-tight catsuit."

Online commenters also had fun with the topic.

"This is a crazy cool new invention! I'm impressed at the creativeness it must have taken to come up with this idea," wrote a user named shasta3 on PopSci.com. "We'll be colonizing other planets in no time! The only downside is that these suits are kinda see through....they should probably work on that."

Well put, shasta3. Well put.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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