Tech by VICE

High-Tech Underwear Will Monitor Astronauts’ Health in Space

Astroskin comes to the ISS.

by Kate Lunau
Oct 21 2016, 5:50pm

"Class photo" of astronauts recruited in 2009 in a parabolic aircraft, including Canadians David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen. Image: Canadian Space Agency

When David Saint-Jacques blasts off to the International Space Station in 2018, he'll take very high-tech underwear with him. On Friday, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced funding for Astroskin—up to $2.4 million over 18 months—which is a smart undershirt made by Montreal's Carré Technologies that can monitor astronauts' vital signs while they float around in space.

Astroskin uses non-invasive sensors fitted into the undershirt to measure several bodily functions: heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, breathing volume, the heart's electrical activity, skin temperature, physical activity levels and blood oxygen levels. It will be integrated into the Space Station's communications system via a Q7 processor card made by Montreal-based Xiphos Technologies, so that it can beam astronauts' health metrics down to Earth. (This isn't the first time the CSA has invested in Astroskin. It previously put $1.86 million towards prototyping its bio-monitoring sensors.)

A "smart shirt" that monitors the health of ISS astronauts. Image: Canadian Space Agency

Another version, called Hexoskin, is commercially available here on Earth, and has been used to monitor high-level athletes and the mentally ill. According to the CSA, the US Navy Medicine has used it to study sleep health in the military.

"Right now, the only time we really monitor the vital signs of astronauts is during launch on the spacecraft, and the return back home, and when we wear spacesuits to do a spacewalk," Saint-Jacques told me over the phone. Even then, what's monitored is fairly "basic," he continued, "like carbon dioxide consumption and heart rate. With Astroskin, we could monitor a host of vital signs all the time on the Space Station."

Read More: The Canadian Space Agency's Plan to Engineer Super-Thin Wearables for Astronauts

A device like this could be really useful for a trip to Mars, he pointed out: It could be hooked up to an "automated system" that would raise a flag if something troubling showed up in an astronaut's health metrics. (Still, signals can take up to 20 minutes to travel between Earth and Mars, so it'd be hard to consult a doctor in real time if anything looked potentially concerning.)

Saint-Jacques, who used to be a family doctor with a northern Inuit community in Quebec, thinks it could also help people in rural communities, or in remote locations like mines, who can't necessarily visit a doctor very easily to check up on their health.

There's some well-founded cynicism about health monitors and wearables, especially those worn on the wrist—but next-generation products that can capture increasingly nuanced and accurate metrics will be crucial to track astronauts as they travel further into space, and for longer periods of time. The Space Station is often called an orbiting laboratory where scientists study, among other things, human health.

"We're really opening the door to a huge number of applications," Saint-Jacques said.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.