A team of researchers at Kansas State University, Manhattan, are developing improvements for astronauts' outerwear. The team, which includes electrical and computer engineering professors and more than a dozen students, envisions a future spacesuit that could monitor astronauts' health and use body heat to power electronics. By working with a model spacesuit, the engineers are exploring how wearable medical sensors can be used in future space missions to keep astronauts healthy.

The project involves five parts: developing and testing biosensors that can monitor vital data, such as breathing rate or muscle activity; creating a specialized wireless network so that spacesuit biosensors can communicate with each other and with a space station; using energy harvesting technology to power radios and biosensors while an astronaut is in a spacesuit; building hardware prototypes for biosensors and energy harvesting electronics; and producing spinoff technologies, such as new radio technologies and devices that apply to home care.

The engineers are using 3D electromagnetic field simulators and a replica spacesuit, because real spacesuits cost $13 million. Batteries are too dangerous to place in a spacesuit's oxygen-rich environment, so the team is developing new energy harvesting methods to gather energy. These methods use the temperature difference between body heat and the spacesuit's cooling garment to power radios and other electronics inside the spacesuit.

Added to the communication and power challenges in space is that astronauts' bodies also change in space. Muscle mass and bone density decrease and an astronaut's vision can change, so members of the team are developing sensors that astronauts can wear to measure their health and predict fatigue onset. Some of the wearable body area network sensors include: electromyographic sensors to monitor muscle activity; accelerometers to measure movement; pulse oximetry sensors worn on the forehead, wrist, or finger to measure blood oxygen saturation and heart rate; and chest-worn respiration belts to measure breathing rate.

The engineers also are developing ways for these sensors to communicate with each other in the suit and to a spacesuit hub that transmits the information back to the space station.