Leaving the comforts of Earth behind, astronauts face many dangers in the depths of space. Zero-gravity conditions can cause confusion, disorientation, and nausea. While facing such symptoms, a routine spacewalk can quickly turn disastrous.

“Without a fail-proof way to return to the spacecraft, an astronaut is at risk of the worst-case scenario: lost in space,” said Kevin Duda, Draper space systems engineer.

Duda and his colleagues have developed a system to ensure an astronaut’s safe return, even if nearby crewmembers cannot help in the rescue. Recently, the team has filed a patent for their self-return system, eliminating the reliance on manual navigation.

“The current spacesuit features no automatic navigation solution—it is purely manual—and that could present a challenge to our astronauts if they are in an emergency,” says Draper’s Director of Space Systems Séamus Tuohy.

To guide disoriented or unconscious astronauts, the system must precisely pinpoint a return location. This becomes quite difficult in the harsh conditions of space. In addition to exact coordinates, the system must consider oxygen levels, duration, optimal safety, and clearance requirements.

Draper’s system includes a host of options, relevant to the condition of the astronaut in need. To start, if a spacewalk has gone awry, the astronaut, crewmember, or mission control can initiate the self-return process.  

For safe navigation back to a spacecraft, the system uses its series of sensors and a helmet visor display to provide directions. This will come in the form of visual, auditory, and sensory indicators. If the astronaut is not fit to conduct a return procedure, the system can autonomously operate the spacesuit’s jet pack.

“Giving astronauts a sense of direction and orientation in space is a challenge because there is no gravity and no easy way to determine which way is up and down,” says Duda. “Our technology improves mission success in space by keeping the crew safe.” 

Draper’s self-return system could also prove useful on Earth, helping flustered scuba divers return to the surface and first responders navigate smoke-filled rooms.