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The astronauts fall. Robotic limbs can help them move backwards.

We all fall sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition to travel in space, but bulky spacesuits and lower gravity levels can be a recipe for disaster, causing them to trip.

The answer to this very specific problem may well lie in robotic limbs. They won’t completely prevent falls, but they can help space travelers get back on their feet.

MIT engineers have developed an exoskeleton designed to provide more support to astronauts and help them right themselves after stumbling in the Moon’s low gravity. The “SuperLimbs” are integrated into a backpack that also contains the motors that power them, as well as the astronaut’s life support system.

The system, which is still in the prototype phase, responds directly to user feedback. Whether sitting or lying down, it offers constructive support to help them get up while expending less energy: every little extra gesture helps in a situation like this.

“Back in the Apollo era, when astronauts fell, 80 percent of the time it was when they were doing digging or some sort of tool work,” says Erik Ballesteros, a doctoral student at MIT. “The Artemis missions will really focus on construction and excavation, so the risk of falling is much higher. We believe SuperLimbs can help them recover so they can be more productive and extend their EVAs.

The system is adapted from an earlier prototype developed several years ago for land workers. In the years since, exosuits have become an increasingly popular method of helping people working in construction and other manual labor jobs avoid unnecessary injuries. The team behind the project began adapting the work following conversations with NASA.

“In our communications with NASA, we learned that this issue of falling on the Moon constitutes a serious risk,” said Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We realized we could make some changes to our design to help astronauts recover from a fall and continue their work.”

Adapting the system meant studying how people recover from a fall. According to researchers, about 80% of us do it the same way. Eventually, the team landed on a control system that powers a pair of robotic arms extending from the backpack to assist the astronaut.

They will begin testing the system over the summer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


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