Medical imaging technology used to repair NASA space suit

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Imaging technology normally applied to diagnosing medical conditions has been used to help repair a NASA space suit. During the procedure, NASA engineers were able to view live 3D images of the space suit, allowing them to find the damage and analyse how it occurred.

The process was carried out at Houston Methodist hospital in Texas, USA, on 8 December, as part of the scientific conference ‘Pumps and Pipes’, an annual event that brings together the medical and energy industries.

NASA wanted to be able to view the inside components of a space suit after one of their astronauts, Luca Parmitano, nearly drowned during a spacewalk last year, because of a leak in his suit which caused his helmet to start filling up with water. To prevent future crises like this, NASA and Houston Methodist hospital worked together to identify how and where such a leak would have occurred.

And, as spacesuits cost millions of dollars to produce, there is an incentive to fix damaged suits instead of making a new ones, especially if a leak can be found without having to take the whole spacesuit apart. ‘We have a very complex machine [spacesuit]… and being able to look inside of those machines without taking them apart has huge advantages to us in terms of figuring out how things might have failed, and also it helps us to figure out how things work,’ said NASA engineer Chris Hansen in an interview with the Associated Press.

Using the same technology normally used for endovascular surgery to examine problems with blood vessels, during the procedure on 8 December, the robotic arm rotated a CT scanner around the helmet of the spacesuit, creating red, black, and white 3D images that allowed engineers to look at the integrity of different components.

‘What we have here is one of the most advanced imaging suites in the world. So we are going to use some of our imaging technologies which we use on a daily basis for studying patients, to see if we can see inside the spacesuit,’ said Dr Alan Lumsden, medical director of the Houston Methodist hospital in the interview with the Associated Press. ‘It allows us to… use x-rays to see the various different components. And, there is also new technology to which we can do 3D reconstruction and modify those images so we can see inside a completed spacesuit.’

Luca Parmitano, the Italian astronaut whose life was put in danger by the faulty suit last year, added: ‘I’m positive that in the future, the problem that happened to me will never happen again, and I’m positive that these imaging capabilities will certainly help in that sense.

‘I have to admit that I never thought about seeing a space suit lying on a surgeon’s table − that is a surprise for me!’

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Further Information

Explanatory video by Associated Press

NASA