NASA’s Perseverance Rover Will Carry First Spacesuit Materials to Mars

In a Q&A, spacesuit designer Amy Ross explains how five samples, including a piece of helmet visor, will be tested aboard the rover, which is targeting a July 30 launch.

NASA is preparing to send the first woman and next man to the
, part of a larger strategy to send the first astronauts to the surface
of Mars. But before they get there, they’ll be faced with a critical question: What
should they wear on Mars, where the thin atmosphere allows more radiation from
the Sun and cosmic
to reach the ground?

Amy Ross is looking for answers. An advanced
spacesuit designer
at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, she’s developing
new suits for the Moon and Mars. So Ross is eagerly awaiting this summer’s
launch of the Perseverance Mars rover, which
will carry the first samples of spacesuit material ever sent to the Red Planet.

While the rover explores Jezero
, collecting rock and soil samples for future return to Earth, 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, including a piece of helmet visor, are embedded alongside a
fragment of a Martian meteorite
in SHERLOC’s calibration target.
That’s what scientists use to make sure an instrument’s settings are correct,
comparing readings on Mars to base-level readings they got on Earth.

Read on as Ross shares insights into the materials chosen
and the differences between suits designed for the Moon and those for Mars.
More information about SHERLOC and the rover’s science can be found here.

Why were these particular
materials on SHERLOC’s calibration target selected?

Ross: 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. 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.

We included a sample of Teflon, which we’ve used in
spacesuits for a long time as part of astronaut glove gauntlets and the backs
of gloves. Just like a nonstick pan, it’s slippery, and it’s harder to catch
and tear a fabric if it’s slick. We also included a sample of Teflon with a
dust-resistant coating.

Finally, there’s a piece of polycarbonate, which we use for
helmet bubbles and visors because it helps reduce ultraviolet light. A nice
thing about it is it doesn’t shatter. If impacted, it bends rather than breaks
and still has good optical properties.

How will SHERLOC
check the samples?

Ross: On Mars, radiation
will break down the chemical composition of the materials, weakening their
tensile strength. 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 can get the spectra, or composition, of rocks the
mission’s scientists want to study. It can do the same thing for these
spacesuit materials. We’ve already tested them on Earth, bathing samples in
radiation and then analyzing their spectra. The results of those tests,
conducted in ultraviolet vacuum chambers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,
will be compared to what we see on Mars.

Will Martian dust be
a challenge?

Ross: Sure, it’s
an engineering challenge, but there’s no reason we can’t design things to
operate in dust. We’re already developing things like seals that keep dust out
of our bearings. Spacesuits have bearings at the shoulders, wrists, hip, upper
thighs, and ankles. They all give an astronaut mobility for walking, kneeling,
and other movements you’d need to get up close to rocks or maintain a habitat.

Remember, our suits inflate to over 4 pounds per square inch
of pressure. That’s not a crazy amount of pressure, but it’s pretty stiff. When
you put a human inside a balloon and ask them to move, they’ll have trouble. It’s
as tight as the head of a drum. So we need to seal off the bearings so dust
doesn’t gunk them up.

We are looking for other ways to protect the suit from
Martian dust over a long-duration mission. 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.

How much would
spacesuit design differ between the space station, the Moon, and Mars?

Ross: Spacesuit
design depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing. The ISS suit is
designed specifically for microgravity. If you go on a spacewalk, you’re not
really walking; you use your hands everywhere. Your lower torso is just used as
a stable platform for your upper body. The suit is also exposed to two
environmental sources of degradation: solar radiation and atomic
. Atomic oxygen is different from the oxygen we breathe. It’s very
reactive and can degrade spacesuit materials.

The Moon doesn’t have the atomic oxygen problem but is worse
than Mars in terms of radiation. You’re pretty close to the Sun and have no
atmosphere to scatter the ultraviolet radiation like you do on Mars. The Moon
is a big testbed for the
Artemis program
. The environments of the Moon and Mars aren’t exactly the
same, but the durability challenges – materials exposed over long periods of
time at low pressures in a dusty environment – are similar.

On Mars, you’re farther from the Sun, and you have at least
a little atmosphere to scatter the UV. But that’s when the duration of exposure
starts to get you. You have to plan on being exposed on the surface most of the
time. Mars spacesuits will be more like ones we use for the Moon and less like
those for the ISS. I’m trying to make the Moon suit as much like the Mars suit
as possible.

More About the Mission

Perseverance is a robotic scientist that weighs just under 2,300 pounds (1,043 kilograms). The
rover’s astrobiology mission will search for signs of past microbial life. It will
characterize the planet’s climate and geology, collect samples for future
return to Earth, and pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet. No
matter what day Perseverance launches during its July 30-Aug. 15 launch window,
it will land at Mars’ Jezero Crater on Feb. 18, 2021.

A division of Caltech, NASA’s
Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover mission for
the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. The mission is part of a larger
program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human
exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by
2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by
2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

Read more about Perseverance:

News Media Contact

Andrew Good

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


Alana Johnson / Grey Hautaluoma

NASA Headquarters, Washington

202-672-4780 / 202-358-0668 /


Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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