Astronaut Mark Vande Hei is pictured attached to the outside of the space station during a spacewalk to lubricate the latching end effector on the tip of the Canadarm2 on Oct. 10, 2017. Photo: NASA

Nonprofit research and development company Draper has created a system that could be incorporated into astronauts’ space suits to help guide them back to a designated safe location in an emergency.

Draper, which provides engineering services to government, industry and academia, filed a patent on the system.

The company was funded by NASA to solve a major limitation in current spacesuits – the lack of any sort of automated navigation system.

Current spacesuits only have manual options for navigation, but if an astronaut becomes disoriented during an extra-vehicular activity (EVA) mission, they could panic and become lost in space.

“Without a fail-proof way to return to the spacecraft, an astronaut is at risk of the worst-case scenario:  lost in space,” said Kevin Duda, a space systems engineer at Draper. Duda has studied astronauts and their habitat on the International Space Station to help create a more efficient and safe spacesuit.

“Giving astronauts a sense of direction and orientation in space is a challenge because there is no gravity and no easy way to determine which way is up and down,” said Duda. “Our technology improves mission success in space by keeping the crew safe.” 

To craft the self-return system, Duda and fellow researchers needed to overcome a series of challenges that has prohibited other teams from developing similar solutions in the past. According to Draper, astronaut spacesuits need to feature a system that could compute an optimal path that accounts for time, oxygen consumption, and safety and clearance requirements, as well as the ability to guide an astronaut that may be unconscious, disoriented or in some form of distress, back to safety.

The Draper system can be operated from the spacesuit’s jet pack autonomously, or give an astronaut directions via visual, auditory and sensory cues through sensors and a helmet visor display.

The sensors can be configured to monitor movement, acceleration and relative position of the astronaut to a fixed object, according to Draper. Navigation, guidance and control modules can adapt to different scenarios, and the system software can fuse data from vision-based and inertial navigation systems.

The “take me home” system can kick in following the direct command of the astronaut, or by a space station crew member of mission control.

Draper believes the system could be beneficial in other applications, other than space-walking. For example, it could help firefighters trapped in a smoke-filled building navigate their way out, or assist scuba divers or skydivers who find themselves in an emergency scenario.