Do we have a problem with space suit hygiene?

Astronauts today are forced to share space suits and some components of underwear, with risks for hygiene. But maybe there is a solution.

The life of the astronaut is undoubtedly fascinating and the spacewalk is probably one of the most iconic moments that crowns a career among the stars.

But working in space isn’t all plain sailing. Wearing a spacesuit, for example, can be a big stomach operation. For several years, in fact, the astronauts of the ISS have been forced to share with their colleagues the space suits used for maintenance operations and scientific experiments conducted outside the Station.

MORE SWEATS, ONE SUIT. To better understand what it means to have to share a spacesuit, let’s take a close look at the dressing of an astronaut as he prepares for a walk in the cosmos.

The first layer is the Maximum Absorbency Garment, the technical name of what it really is… a disposable super-blanket that makes up for the lack of toilets, where the stars shine. Above this, the astronaut wears his own thermal underwear and Liquid Cooling Ventilation Garment (LCVG), which resembles a composite harness made up of special tubes, inside which coolant and air flow. The task of the LCVG is to keep the astronaut cool and dry during the great efforts made while working in a vacuum.

The LCVG is worn close to the skin and, along with the spacesuit, is used by multiple astronauts during each mission. The growing number of astronauts who will work on the ISS in the coming years has therefore prompted ESA to seek a solution to sanitize these shared materials.


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SPATIAL HYGIENE. “Space textiles, especially those subject to biological contamination such as underwear used under suits, expose astronauts to health risks during longer missions,” ESA materials engineer Malgorzata Holynska told the press.

For this reason, ESA is working on the development of molecules capable of eliminating bacteria from the fabrics worn by astronauts. Hygiene aboard the ISS is a complex matter: there is no washing machine, clothes are usually worn every other day and then incinerated during the return to Earth.

Antibacterial fabrics are certainly not new: the fibers enriched with silver or copper that in contact with water or oxygen release ions capable of blocking bacterial activity have existed for several years. But when worn daily for long periods these materials can cause serious skin irritation.

FRIENDLY BACTERIA. ESA scientists therefore chose to fight the bacteria by using other bacteria or, better still, secondary metabolites, substances produced by the microorganisms themselves to protect themselves from extreme environmental conditions. The secondary metabolites are in fact able to fight microbes, viruses and fungi, at least here on Earth.

The researchers’ goal is now to understand how secondary metabolites will behave in space, including radiation, sweat and dust from unknown or nearly unknown planets.

The project, conducted in collaboration with the Vienna Textile Lab, will last two years and will be accessible to scientists and researchers from all disciplines via ESA’s Open Space Innovation platform.

by Abdullah Sam
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