Spacesuit Simulator

Our version of a manipulative model developed by NASA in the early 1990s to illustrate the mechanism by which engineers protect astronauts from the extreme heat of the sun during spacewalks and remote operations is designed to get students thinking about aerospace science.

Items

  • Aquarium thermometer
  • Aquarium tubing
  • Awl or screwdriver
  • Coffee cans
  • Faucet adapter
  • Garden Sprayer
  • Infrared sauna bulb

Our version of a manipulative model developed by NASA in the early 1990s to illustrate the mechanism by which engineers protect astronauts from the extreme heat of the sun during spacewalks and remote operations is designed to get students thinking about aerospace science.

For younger students, two whole class demonstrations (one with and one without the internal cooling mechanism) can generate data for a simple double line graph tracking the temperature of the cans as they are exposed to the heat lamp (a “green version” of the experiment can be done outside on a sunny day with a garden hose or simple siphon to cool the model in lieu of water pumped from the sink and heat generated by the infrared bulb).

Students normally run two consecutive data trials of 10 minutes each, which allows time within a 40-50 minute science lesson for the setting up and dismantling of the equipment. When the temperature of the setup remains unchanged for three consecutive readings, students may elect to stop testing. The indoor/science lab version of the experiment tends to generate a more uniform heating curve and data of slightly higher integrity. Ask your students why (the infrared rays of the sun a normally filtered by clouds and particulates in the atmosphere).

Some Variations:

1. You may try using a thinner radius of tubing and smaller can (soup can in lieu of the coffee can). This may enable you to run six trials of the experiment with six teams in class and compare their findings en masse. Also, the internally cooled smaller can with a thinner cooling coil would have less mass, requiring less magnetic force to attach it to the ring stand (you may choose to simply stand the can on a smooth surface if you are unable to find a rare earth magnet strong enough to suspend it on the ring stand. You may also use a large pipe clamp from the hardware store in lieu of the magnet).

2. Ask students to evaluate the data and to propose improvements to the model. Advanced learners may comment on the inefficiency of using a rubber tube to carry the water through the through the center of the temperature controlled can (rubber is an insulator, which limits the effectiveness of the cooling mechanism). Students may propose substituting copper tubing (expensive and more difficult to work with yet a better conductor of heat energy).

3. Try to capture and recycle the effluent, if even to water classroom plants with it. I use a 5 gallon construction pale and run the faucet slowly to conserve the amount of water used in the experiment. The water simply needs to move through the coils continuously, but it can do so slowly.

4. Keywords for further investigation: Infrared Ray, Radiation, Vacuum, Conduction, Insulator, Conductor, Siphon, Hyperthermia.

5. Extension: Purchase a toddler’s snowsuit from a thrift store and thread the thin aquarium tubing through it between the outer shell and inner lining. Test your prototype in the same manner with either a meat thermometer placed inside the suit or ideally with a Vernier temperature probe interfacing with your computer. It’s visually exciting to design and build a space suit simulator in the shape of a human form, and a toddler’s snow-suit makes an excellent scaled down prototype for testing.

6. On a very cold day, siphon or pump warmed water through the suit and attempt to reverse the process, maintaining a comfortable body temperature in an extreme cold setting to prevent hypothermia. You may also test your prototype in a chest freezer if you have access to one in your school’s dining hall.

7. Reading Further: Find biographical accounts of the first astronauts’ early space walks and learn about experiences and sensation of the conditions in outer space. If you’re lucky, ask an astronaut in person at an air & space museum or a school visit.