Backyard Observatory

The First Mars Spacesuit Material Is Headed to the Red Planet for Tests This Week

NASA's Perseverance rover will bring materials to Mars when it launches this week for testing.

MArs spacesuit
Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley in SpaceX spacesuits prior to launching to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft earlier in 2020. | NASA
Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley in SpaceX spacesuits prior to launching to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft earlier in 2020. | NASA

The Mars Perseverance Rover taking off for Mars on July 30 is an exciting event itself. However, it's bringing along some thrilling projects for tests. For instance, the Ingenuity Helicopter will be attempting to fly on the Martian surface. It's the first aircraft to try a controlled flight on another planet. 

It might not be as flashy, but another big test will be aboard the rover. Perseverance will be carrying spacesuit materials that could be used on a crewed mission to Mars. NASA is already preparing to send the first woman and next man to the moon's surface, which is itself a step on the path to sending the first astronauts to the Martian surface. Perseverance will bring along five samples for the suit.

These materials are an early step in determining how to construct the spacesuits for Mars, where the atmosphere is thinner than on Earth. The suits will have to be able to endure the increased radiation from the sun and cosmic rays that the Martian atmosphere allows. 

An instrument called SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals) will study those five samples, which includes material for a helmet visor. 

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Advanced spacesuit designer Amy Ross of the NASA's Johnson Space Center stands with the Z-2, a prototype spacesuit. | NASA

"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," Amy Ross, an advanced spacesuit designer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said in a NASA Q&A. She is developing new suits for missions to both the moon and Mars. "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."

The samples also include cut-resistant Vectran, used on the palm of gloves; Teflon, used on the back of glove gauntlets and a potential dust-resistant coating; and polycarbonate, used for shatter-proof helmet bubbles and visors. "On Mars, radiation will break down the chemical composition of the materials," Ross said, "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?"

Ross adds that the final Mars-bound suits may be similar to ones used by astronauts on the moon because the challenges are similar, and are different than those faced by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, which is a microgravity environment. 

The tests might not produce the spectacular visuals and audio -- Perseverance has microphones onboard -- that we'll get from the rover, but the tests are genuinely exciting. It's a big step toward a crewed mission to the red planet. 

Ready to go stargazing?

Here are all the best stargazing events that you can get out and see this month or you could stay in a stream the northern lights from home. If you're just getting started, check out our guide to astronomy for beginners

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow him @dlukenelson.