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ESA targets microbe resistance in moon spacesuits with PExTex project

02 Aug '23
3 min read
The PExTex spacesuit concept. Pic: European Space Agency
The PExTex spacesuit concept. Pic: European Space Agency

Insights

  • The ESA and Austrian Space Forum are leading the PExTex project to design spacesuits for the moon's extreme environment.
  • This includes innovations like high-strength Twaron material, withstanding 2,500 hours of surface use, and a focus on preventing harmful microbial growth.
  • The BACTeRMA project also explores secondary metabolites for antimicrobial use.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has launched the PExTex (Planetary Exploration Textiles) project, targeting the design of advanced spacesuits capable of withstanding the moon’s harsh environment. Key to this project is not just protecting astronauts from external dangers, but also ensuring the suits themselves do not become breeding grounds for harmful microbes.

The Austrian Space Forum is leading a vital part of this effort, known as BACTeRMA, focusing on preventing microbial growth within the spacesuits. This is especially crucial as astronauts may potentially share suits with one another, the ESA said in a press release.

The lunar surface presents various hazards for astronauts, including hard vacuum, extreme temperatures, space radiation, and abrasive dust. These factors were known to compromise the Apollo-era spacesuits quickly. Thus, the PExTex project, led by France’s Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX), is assessing novel materials such as high-strength Twaron that were not available during the Apollo missions.

These materials are being rigorously tested to ensure that the spacesuits can withstand at least 2,500 hours of surface use. The German Institutes of Textile and Fiber Research (DITF) have been conducting tests, including ultra-high vacuum exposure, electrical discharge, temperature shifts, and rubbing with simulated moondust.

Another PExTex partner, the Austrian Space Forum (OeWF), has been working on keeping the insides of spacesuits safe and healthy through its 'Biocidal Advanced Coating Technology for Reducing Microbial Activity', or BACTeRMA. Instead of using traditional antimicrobial materials like silver or copper, which might cause skin irritation, the team has turned to secondary metabolites. These naturally occurring compounds, often colourful and with antibiotic qualities, are being tested for effectiveness.

Collaboration with the Vienna Textile Lab, known for its unique bacteriographic collection, has enabled the BACTeRMA team to develop techniques such as dying cloth with bacterial metabolites, then exposing them to radiation, moondust, and simulated human perspiration for testing durability.

Valuable insights have been gained into the effectiveness of substances like violacein pigment and prodigiosin on various textile materials. The two-year BACTeRMA project, proposed by OeWF in cooperation with the Vienna Textile Lab, underscores the importance of multidisciplinary research.

The PExTex initiative represents a significant advancement in spacesuit technology, melding cutting-edge materials with biological science to ensure both the safety and comfort of future lunar explorers.

Gernot Gromer, OwEF director, said: “The findings of PExTex and BACTeRMA lay the foundation for future developments in the areas of antimicrobial treatments and the integration of smart textile technologies. Additionally, these projects could have broader implications for the textile industry, by demonstrating the feasibility and importance of developing innovative textiles with specialised properties.

“The Austrian Space Forum is currently integrating the newly developed textiles in its spacesuit simulator. In March 2024 these materials may undergo their first analog field test as part of our simulation of a crewed Mars mission in Armenia during the AMADEE-24 field campaign.”

Fibre2Fashion News Desk (NB)

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