Scientists Are Racing to Save Neil Armstrong's Deteriorating Spacesuit

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

While the public debate surrounding the elimination of drinking straws and other disposable objects rages on, museums are presented with an opposite challenge: figuring out how to preserve artifacts made from plastic. As The New York Times reports in an article highlighting the dilemma, Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit is just one of the many partly plastic objects at risk of falling apart.

The spacesuit was designed to withstand the elements of space and "provide a life-sustaining environment for the astronaut during periods of extravehicular activity or during unpressurized spacecraft operation," according to the National Air and Space Museum, where it has been displayed or stored since 1971. However, it wasn't meant to stand the test of time.

The suit was constructed from 21 different layers of plastic—including nylon, Mylar, and Teflon, to name a few—but a layer of neoprene has proven to be the most problematic. The custodians of Armstrong’s spacesuit predicted that this layer would harden over time, making the suit stiff and brittle. When the risk of damage became critical in 2006, the suit was removed from its public display at the Air and Space Museum and sent into storage to lessen the risk of degradation. Later, a brown stain was discovered on the suit’s torso area—a result of plasticizer escaping from the air supply tubes.

Fortunately, the deterioration was stopped in time, but other vintage spacesuits with plastic components haven’t been so lucky. Plastics are especially hard to preserve because they’re only about 150 years old, and thus museum conservators don’t have much precedent to learn from.

“We have a very short history, in comparison to other materials, in understanding how long those materials last,” Hugh Shockey, lead conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, told the Times.

This is proving to be a common problem at museums around the world. In order to find a solution, conservators are first tasked with determining what kind of plastic each artifact is made of, which will determine how long the item may survive without intervention.

Next, the challenge is figuring out how to best preserve the item to slow the degradation process, which could involve limiting its exposure to UV rays, keeping the temperature and humidity low, or doing what’s necessary to prevent oxidation.

As for Armstrong’s spacesuit, it will ultimately be displayed in a case specially made for the purpose, which will be kept at 63°F and 30 percent humidity. Museum staff hope to have it ready by the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next year.

[h/t The New York Times]

What Happens to Your Body If You Die in Space?

iStock.com/1971yes
iStock.com/1971yes

The coming decades should bring about a number of developments when it comes to blasting people into orbit and beyond. Private space travel continues to progress, with Elon Musk and Richard Branson championing civilian exploration. Professional astronauts continue to dock at the International Space Station (ISS) for scientific research. By the 2040s, human colonists could be making the grueling journey to Mars.

With increased opportunities comes the increased potential for misadventure. Though only 18 people have died since the emergence of intragalactic travel in the 20th century, taking more frequent risks may mean that coroners will have to list "space" as the site of death in the future. But since it's rare to find a working astronaut in compromised health or of an advanced age, how will most potential casualties in space meet their maker?

Popular Science posed this question to Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the ISS. According to Hadfield, spacewalks—a slight misnomer for the gravity-free floating that astronauts engage in outside of spacecraft—might be one potential danger. Tiny meteorites could slice through their protective suits, which provide oxygen and shelter from extreme temperatures. Within 10 seconds, water in their skin and blood would vaporize and their body would fill with air: Dissolved nitrogen near the skin would form bubbles, blowing them up like a dollar-store balloon to twice their normal size. Within 15 seconds, they would lose consciousness. Within 30 seconds, their lungs would collapse and they'd be paralyzed. The good news? Death by asphyxiation or decompression would happen before their body freezes, since heat leaves the body slowly in a vacuum.

This morbid scene would then have to be dealt with by the accompanying crew. According to Popular Science, NASA has no official policy for handling a corpse, but Hadfield said ISS training does touch on the possibility. As he explained it, astronauts would have to handle the the body as a biohazard and figure out their storage options, since there's really no prepared area for that. To cope with both problems, a commander would likely recommend the body be kept inside a pressurized suit and taken someplace cold—like where garbage is stored to minimize the smell.

If that sounds less than regal, NASA agrees. The company has explored the business of space body disposal before, and one proposition involves freeze-drying the stiff with liquid nitrogen (or simply the cold vacuum of space) so it can be broken up into tiny pieces of frozen tissue, which would occupy only a fraction of the real estate that a full-sized body would.

Why not eject a body, like Captain Kirk and his crew were forced to do with the allegedly dead Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Bodies jettisoned into space without a rocket to change their trajectory would likely fall into the wake of the spacecraft. If enough people died on a long trip, it would create a kind of inverted funeral procession.

Even if safely landed on another planet, an astronaut's options don't necessarily improve. On Mars, cremation would likely be necessary to destroy any Earth-borne bacteria that would flourish on a buried body.

Like most everything we take for granted on Earth—eating, moving, and even pooping—it may be a long time before dying in space becomes dignified.

[h/t Popular Science]

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Life on Nearby Exoplanet Barnard's Star B Might Be Possible, According to Astronomers

iStock.com/PavelSmilyk
iStock.com/PavelSmilyk

Despite contradictory statements from UFO eyewitnesses, we have yet to confirm the presence of intelligent life beyond Earth. But astronomers continue to flirt with that hope. The most recent speculation comes from Barnard’s Star, the second-closest star system to Earth, which is circled by a frozen super-Earth dubbed Barnard's Star b. While its surface might be as cold as -274°F, there may just be potential for life.

According to CNET, the chilly Barnard's Star b—located 6 light years away from Earth—could still be hospitable to living organisms. Astrophysicists at Villanova University speculate the planet could have a hot liquid-iron core that produces geothermal energy. That warmth might support primitive life under the icy surface. A similar situation could possibly occur on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, where tidal heating might allow for subsurface oceans containing living things.

Barnard's Star b has a mass just over three times that of Earth. The conclusions about potential life were drawn by Villanova researchers from 15 years of photometry examination of the solar system [PDF].

“The most significant aspect of the discovery of Barnard’s star b is that the two nearest star systems to the Sun are now known to host planets,” Scott Engle, a Villanova astrophysicist, said in a statement. “This supports previous studies based on Kepler Mission data, inferring that planets can be very common throughout the galaxy, even numbering in the tens of billions. Also, Barnard’s Star is about twice as old as the Sun—about 9 billion years old compared to 4.6 billion years for the Sun. The universe has been producing Earth-size planets far longer than we, or even the Sun itself, have existed.”

Scientists hope to learn more about the potential for life on Barnard's Star b as new, more powerful telescopes are put into use. NASA’s delayed James Webb Space Telescope could be one such solution. Its 21-foot mirror—three times the size of the Hubble—is set to open in 2021.

[h/t CNET]

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