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The Future SpaceSuit

Discussion in 'Tech, Science, and Space' started by Tom, May 20, 2008.

  1. Tom

    Tom An Old Friend

    Joined:
    Dec 6, 2004
    Location:
    Gulf Coast
    Imagine that you are aboard a space station, spun to simulate Earth's normal gravity. After instruction, you have been given a suit to try out: there it hangs on the wall, a gray, rubbery-looking thing with a transparent helmet. You take it down, heft its substantial weight, strip, and step in through the open seam on the front.

    The suit feels softer than the softest rubber, but has a slick inner surface. It slips on easily and the seam seals at a touch. It provides a skintight covering like a thin leather glove around your fingers, thickening as it runs up your arm to become as thick as your hand in the region around your torso. Behind your shoulders, scarcely noticeable, is a small backpack. Around your head, almost invisible, is the helmet. Below your neck the suits inner surface hugs your skin with a light, uniform touch that soon becomes almost imperceptible.

    You stand up and walk around, experimenting. You bounce on your toes and feel no extra weight from the suit. You bend and stretch and feel no restraint, no wrinkling, no pressure points. When you rub your fingers together they feel sensitive, as if bare - but somehow slightly thicker. As you breathe, the air tastes clean and fresh. In fact, you feel that you could forget that you are wearing a suit at all. What is more, you feel just as comfortable when you step out into the vacuum of space.

    The suit manages to do all this and more by means of complex activity within a structure having a texture almost as intricate as that of living tissue. A glove finger a millimeter thick has room for a thousand micron-thick layers of active nanomachinery and nanoelectronics. A fingertip-sized patch has room for a billion mechanical nanocomputers, with 99.9 percent of the volume left over for other components.

    In particular, this leaves room for an active structure. The middle layer of the suit material holds a three-dimensional weave of diamond-based fibers acting much like artificial muscle, but able to push as well as pull (as discussed in the Notes). These fibers take up much of the volume and make the suit material as strong as steel. Powered by microscopic electric motors and controlled by nanocomputers, they give the suit material its supple strength, making it stretch, contract, and bend as needed. When the suit felt soft earlier, this was because it had been programmed to act soft. The suit has no difficulty holding its shape in a vacuum; it has strength enough to avoid blowing up like a balloon. Likewise, it has no difficulty supporting its own weight and moving to match your motions, quickly, smoothly, and without resistance. This is one reason why it almost seems not to be there at all.

    Your fingers feel almost bare because you feel the texture of what you touch. This happens because pressure sensors cover the suit's surface and active structure covers its lining: the glove feels the shape of whatever you touch - and the detailed pattern of pressure it exerts - and transmits the same texture pattern to your skin. It also reverses the process, transmitting to the outside the detailed pattern of forces exerted by your skin on the inside of the glove. Thus the glove pretends that it isn't there, and your skin feels almost bare.

    The suit has the strength of steel and the flexibility of your own body. If you reset the suit's controls, the suit continues to match your motions, but with a difference. Instead of simply transmitting the forces you exert, it amplifies them by a factor of ten. Likewise, when something brushes against you, the suit now transmits only a tenth of the force to the inside. You are now ready for a wrestling match with a gorilla.

    The fresh air you breathe may not seem surprising; the backpack includes a supply of air and other consumables. Yet after a few days outside in the sunlight, your air will not run out: like a plant, the suit absorbs sunlight and the carbon dioxide you exhale, producing fresh oxygen. Also like a plant (or a whole ecosystem), it breaks down other wastes into simple molecules and reassembles them into the molecular patterns of fresh, wholesome food. In fact, the suit will keep you comfortable, breathing, and well fed almost anywhere in the inner solar system.

    What is more, the suit is durable. It can tolerate the failure of numerous nanomachines because it has so many others to take over the load. The space between the active fibers leaves room enough for assemblers and disassemblers to move about and repair damaged devices. The suit repairs itself as fast as it wears out.

    Within the bounds of the possible, the suit could have many other features. A speck of material smaller than a pinhead could hold the text of every book ever published, for display on a fold-out screen. Another speck could be a "seed" containing the blueprints for a range of devices greater than the total the human race has yet built, along with replicating assemblers able to make any or all of them.

    What is more, fast technical AI systems like those described in the last chapter could design the suit in a morning and have it built by afternoon.

    All that we accomplish in space with modern bulk technology will be swiftly and dramatically surpassed shortly after molecular technology and automated engineering arrive. In particular, we will build replicating assemblers that work in space. These replicators will use solar energy as plants do, and with it they will convert asteroidal rubble into copies of themselves and products for human use. With them, we will grasp the resources of the solar system.
     

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