Motion Tracking Technology Will Help NASA Build Better Space Habitats

By Maddie Stone on at

As we send humans deeper into space for longer periods of time, habitat design is going to become a crucial part of mission planning. A clever new technology could help NASA figure out how astronauts use their environments, so that we can build much better ones.

In partnership with NASA, engineers at Draper are currently testing a motion tracking device astronauts can wear as they go about their daily duties on the International Space Station. With space at a premium, NASA is keen to learn which parts of the station are being used most, which aren’t, and if there are any ways the habitat’s design can be improved to make life easier for its crew.

“In the past, spacecraft design studies focused on the square footage needed per person,” Draper’s Kevin Duda, the principal investigator for the project, told Gizmodo in an email. “We want to understand how astronauts are actually using the volume of the spacecraft for their tasks. This can help inform decisions about how much volume may be needed for particular tasks, whether it’s a particular research task, or even exercise equipment.”

Answering these questions could help shape the first human habitats we build on Mars.

The Draper device, which incorporates low-cost optical and inertial sensing technology, collects data on an astronaut’s location and orientation, which is fed into algorithms to produce a continuous motion tracking animation. Last month, Draper engineers carried a prototype of the device through an ISS mockup located at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Check out the results in the video below—it kinda reminds me of those old Uncle Worm games you could play on your TI calculator when you were bored in algebra class:

Duda tells Gizmodo that Draper is hoping to get the device up to astronauts on the ISS within the next three to five years. “We’d like for astronauts to have significant time with it so we can get useful data before the space station is retired,” he said. “ We would also like to test this on a parabolic flight to understand how the system performs in a weightless environment.”

In addition to helping NASA hone in on the precise volumes needed for eating, exercising and science-ing in space, motion-tracking technology can reveal how astronauts interact with their environments in subtle ways. “For example, kitchen sinks and cabinets are generally laid out in positions that make it easy to access them together,” Duda said. “Bathrooms are often positioned near kitchens and primary living spaces.” By carefully tracking astronauts’ movements and orientation, we can figure out what aspects of the current layout need improvement.

If these sound like trivial details, rest assured they’re not. Remember, unlike you and me, astronauts can’t exactly leave their built environments. Being stuck in a tin can 24/7 is a pretty stressful situations, but any little things we can do to improve the experience—even things as simple as making sure dishes are within reach of the sink—will go a long way toward ensuring that our brave spacefarers retain their sanity in the cosmic void.

And that, I think we can all agree, is a goal we’d like to shoot for.


Top: Interior view from the ISS’s Cupola module. Image Credit: NASA