Engineering Focus

Reducing the barriers to spaceflight

Sydney-based startup, Metakosmos, aims to reshape the future of space exploration by reducing the cost of spacesuit manufacturing. Through digital optimisation technology, they aim to tailor spacesuits for diverse body shapes. 

Metakosmos emphasises innovation and embraces bold ideas through collaborations with universities, facilitating the commercialisation of research technologies through shared partnerships and technology transfer programs to expand space industry capabilities.

The start-up currently partners with the Australian Postgraduate Research Intern Network, enlisting the expertise of Australian PhD students for the research and development of spacesuit components and technologies.

Recently, Metakosmos was selected for the Seed Program by the NSW Space Research Network, which is renowned for its role in identifying and nurturing early-stage space technology startups displaying significant potential for growth and innovation.

As part of the New South Wales Space Research Network Seed program, the University of Technology Sydney has secured a grant to engage in a collaborative venture with Metakosmos.

The goal of the venture is to address the customisation of spacesuits for diverse body shapes and sizes using exclusive digital optimisation techniques.

Kiriti Rambhatla, Metakosmos CEO, expressed enthusiasm about this collaboration, stating, “We are excited and grateful for the opportunity to be part of the SRN Seed Program.

“We look forward to the support from UTS and collaborating with Dr. Nico Pietroni whose work on geometry processing mesh parametrisation and digital fabrication will be path breaking for this collaboration.”

Digital optimisation

Since the mid-to-late-20th century, spacesuit manufacturing was naturally a highly specialised process involving the creation of protective garments designed for astronauts set for space exploration. In the process of spacesuit manufacturing, engineers and designers meticulously crafted detailed designs to ensure the safety of astronauts exploring space.

These blueprints were tailored to meet the specific demands of each mission, incorporating considerations for ergonomics and essential safety features.

These suits protected astronauts against the vacuum of space, regulated extreme temperatures, enabled mobility in microgravity, shielded them from radiation, and resisted micrometeoroids and debris.

Eventually, these advanced spacesuits empowered astronauts to navigate and explore the cosmos with relative confidence.

Although the suits from the revered Apollo-era stand as remarkable engineering achievements, they were not without shortcomings.

Metakosmos, however, is on a mission to build upon these historic efforts and bring about improvements in spacesuit manufacturing using digital optimisation.

“We have a collaboration going on, where the professor at UTS would bring in their expertise, or specialisation into the workflow that we’re working on. So, this is essentially digitally optimising the fit of the spacesuit designs that we have created,” said Rambhatla.

“So that would help us translate these designs to hosted body shapes and sizes, because traditionally, suits have been made in a certain specification in size, they wouldn’t fit all the astronauts well. So, this is a step in that direction to ensure you have a fit, which essentially sits well on the astronaut’s body.”

Image: Metakosmos

Rambhatla explained that their digital optimisation is a unique approach. Therefore, he believes that their designs will be a “game-changer” within the space industry.

“What is usually shown is the suit aesthetics. Agencies press releases generally do not dive deep into suit sizes for different body-shapes. Designing the first spacesuits used for various body shapes and sizes for mass-level consumption will be the game-changer.”

Metakosmos’ algorithm enables the company to manufacture spacesuits beyond the confines of the basic small, medium to large-size categories.

Metakosmos is developing a customised platform, called the Unified Receptive Production System, which is a complete solution, designed to advance the traditional spacesuit manufacturing process and to produce suits at scale. It’s an integrated platform for product lifecycle management and manufacturing execution system.

“Our unique system can accommodate the UTS algorithm. This algorithm goes beyond the modern standard size models (small, medium, and large), to account for the compression and the fit of an individual,” said Rambhatla.

So, the digital optimisation process would ensure that a 3D scan of the form of the body is available as digital files in our platform, to the specified size and fit, this assists in streamlining the manufacturing process and for iterative design.”

Ensuring that the astronaut has a perfectly fitted spacesuit is essential for several reasons.

As pressure increases within the suit, it becomes crucial to maintain a specific pressure level for the well-being of the occupant along with internal thermal management and joint mobility.

When exposed to the extreme conditions of space, the suit structure may expand, which can limit mobility. Therefore, the occupant must be capable of regulating the mobility of their joints within the suit structure.

“It has been incredibly hard to design suits and to manage all of those variables in the past. That meant, once the suit is pressurised, the dimensions of how the suit sits on top of the user  may change, which can shift everything inside it,” explained Rambhatla.

“That would lead to a lot of issues related to mobility, and increased joint torques, as well. So, the suit must be pressurised enough to be able to achieve a minimal movement that you could do very easily here on Earth. All of these things add to the complexity of the architecture of the suit.”

Addressing costs

Throughout their endeavour to improve spacesuit design, the Metakosmos team encountered several challenges – addressing the costs of the manufacturing process remains a major challenge.

The cost of manufacturing a spacesuit can vary widely depending on the type of spacesuit and its intended use. However, it is generally considered to be an expensive process.

Extravehicular activity or EVA suits require an array of features like mobility joints, life support systems, thermal control, communication systems, and shielding from micrometeoroids, all of which add to the total cost.

They also require specialised components to manufacture, which can of course become expensive to source.

After the manufacturing process, spacesuits must undergo rigorous testing and certification processes to ensure they meet safety standards.

Each phase of spacesuit manufacturing often requires agencies to outsource skillsets or materials from multiple different industries.

Accordingly, combined with other budget considerations of space travel, the number of astronauts being trained per year is limited.

Currently, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has only employed 360 astronaut candidates.

“The agencies are often restricted in the number of people that they can take into these programmes because the training infrastructure and costs of suits are high.,” said Rambhatla.

“We believe if you could reduce these costs, there’d be an opportunity for more people to be onboarded into these programmes to get trained,” explained Rambhatla.

Metakosmos is now aiming to make the process of spacesuit manufacturing more economical by housing multiple skillsets under one roof.

“Traditionally, spacesuit manufacturing has been a very expensive process, because manufacturers would often have to bring skillsets from different industries, it’s largely been in the domain of defence,” Rambhatla said.

“You’ve got some processes that are done through computers, some processes by hand and those operations are managed by multiple suppliers as well. So, it’s been a bit of a complicated process, and it still runs that way.

“What we’re trying to do now is build an internal production platform that makes it very easy to mass produce these things in the future.”

Stress-testing suits

Currently, the testing process is widely dispersed because the suits are not manufactured for commercial use. As a result, there is no standardised method for conducting tests.

Throughout their testing process, the Metakosmos team refers to NASA’s safety standards for their spacesuit design.

Over the past five decades, NASA has dedicated considerable time to ensuring spacesuit safety, and they have since shared this acquired knowledge with the global community.

Ideally, this wealth of information would be integrated into a process akin to an ISO standard for the aerospace and defence industry, ensuring a high-quality management process that is universally attainable.

“We are making a plan to have our suits tested to the highest standards for extreme environments, radiation temperatures and chemical exposure,” Rambhatla said.

Many of the fabrics used in spacesuit manufacturing must also possess ballistic resistance to safeguard against rapid-moving objects such as small micro-meteorites.

“There’s a host of testing standards that have been defined by NASA, in the 60s and 70s, which are still evolving, to ensure that all these things are captured well enough,” explained Rambhatla.”

“We are designing an internal production platform, that has the entire engineering process digitally mapped. This makes it easier to source materials from other industries that meet the standards and requirements.”

The future

The Metakosmos team is looking to commercially license their digital optimisation platform for research purposes – Rambhatla said that potential partners from India and the Middle East have already expressed interest.

“We have had collaborations on research projects with CSIRO and academia, on focus areas such as biomechanics, biomarkers, and human performance in extreme conditions. We have had discussions with potential partners in Australia, USA, India, and the Middle East on the deployment of the suit platform.”

“We’re looking at licencing models, so we can give our partners access to our design files. Once they have the files, they can quickly put a solution together. Our partners can locally source raw materials and then assemble their suit,” he said.

“Users may soon be fitted with Metakosmos suits for testing and training purposes, such as parabolic flights, underwater or defence activities. We are aiming for mass testing adoption across several terrestrial use cases.”

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