Future Astronauts Could Gain a Sense of Touch Thanks to MIT Smart Fabrics Aboard the ISS

Using modified piezoelectric cabling, the smart fabrics may one day act as an electronic skin capable of sensitive measurements.

Gareth Halfacree
3 months ago β€’ Sensors
The passive smart fabric samples were sent to the ISS for a year to help determine how well these fabrics survive low Earth orbit. (πŸ“·: JAXA/Space and edited by MIT News)

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have sent smart fabrics into space β€” in the hopes that they'll prove capable of detecting cosmic dust or letting astronauts "feel" through their spacesuits.

"We imagine turning this spacecraft skin into an enormous space debris and micrometeoroid impact sensor," Juliana Cherston explains of the project to MIT News. "The samples that we worked with JAXA, the Japanese space agency, and Space BD to send to the International Space Station incorporate materials like charge-sensitive synthetic fur β€” an early concept β€” and vibration-sensitive fiber sensors β€” our project’s focus β€” into space-resilient fabrics. The resulting fabric may be useful for detecting cosmic dust of scientific interest, and for damage detection on spacecraft."

"The fabric samples contain thermally drawn 'acoustic' fibers developed with ISN funding that are capable of converting mechanical vibration energy into electric energy (via the piezoelectric effect)," adds colleague Wei Yan. "When micrometeoroids or space debris hit the fabric, the fabric vibrates, and the 'acoustic' fiber generates an electrical signal. Thermally drawn multimaterial fibers have been developed by our research group at MIT for more than 20 years; what makes these acoustic fibers special is their exquisite sensitivity to mechanical vibrations. The fabric has been shown in ground facilities to detect and measure impact regardless of where the space dust impacted the surface of the fabric."

The fabrics have been shipped to the International Space Station, but the immediate testing won't see their sensor capabilities activated; instead, the samples are to be left exposed to space for a year, unpowered, to see how the materials stand up long-term. Should they survive, the team is looking at implementations which will turn spacecraft and space suit thermal fabrics into debris detection systems, space dust monitors, and even let astronauts replicate a sense of touch through their pressurised space suits.

More details on the project can be found on MIT News.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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