June 03, 2013
HOUSTON — Control moment gyros (CMGs) have stabilized spacecraft, large and small, for decades. Now researchers at MIT and the Draper Laboratory believe the rapidly spinning devices can do the same for astronauts working in weightlessness.
The efforts, which are receiving $600,000 in NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) funding, could improve efficiency by adding attitude control to astronauts wearing jet packs or introduce an artificial “downward” force inside a spacecraft that improves dexterity while stemming the bone and muscle loss and other ill effects that accompany weeks and months of weightlessness.
There are potential terrestrial applications as well. Small CMGs worn on the body like a personal digital assistant (PDA), could become a part of physical rehabilitation strategies or improve the gait and stability of the elderly.
“Outside of the space station or outside a body like an asteroid, astronauts would be able to use their spacesuits as a natural work platform, as opposed to being tethered to something,” said Bobby Cohanim, a Draper mission design group leader, during a May 31 interview. “Currently, astronauts tether to the space station while they do their work so they don’t fly off.”
NASA’s development activities with the concept date back to a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), a jet pack evaluated aboard the Skylab space station and early space shuttle missions. The addition of battery-powered CMGs to an advanced MMU would add attitude control, an upgrade that would prevent spacewalkers wielding power tools or swinging a hammer from quickly exhausting their fuel supply.
“CMGs with jets would allow them to work in that environment easily,” Cohanim said.
Advances in CMG and battery technologies as well as computer algorithms are merging with NASA’s human deep-space exploration ambitions to drive the work. This summer, the MIT/Draper team and their NASA collaborators plan to test their CMG spacesuit concept in a Johnson Space Center Virtual Reality Laboratory, a computer simulation facility used by International Space Station astronauts to train for spacewalks and other operations.
Ultimately, experimenters would like to test their equipment on the ISS, Cohanim said.
Meanwhile, NIAC-backed work on the Variable Vector Countermeasure suit (V2Suit) could make it easier for astronauts to adapt to the range of gravity levels they experience while living aboard the space station, traveling in a space habitat or exploring an asteroid, the Moon or Mars.