Engineers from the University of North Dakota are evaluating their space suit design that would be worn by NASA astronauts on Mars.
The suits will protect the person inside from cold, heat and radiation, supply air and water, and be flexible enough that astronauts can dig samples and do the other tasks required.
“‘Suit’ is really kind of a misnomer,” said Pablo De Leon, the researcher leading this week’s evaluations.
“Containing a human being into anything is very complex, so we have a spacesuit which is really a miniaturised spacecraft, and it has to be built in a way that is mobile, fairly comfortable and lets you work. It’s really much more of a machine.”
The prototype De Leon and his team are analysing is called the NDX-1. It is being used for trying different technologies and is not necessarily the final product that will be worn on another world.
The team are also using the opportunity to evaluate self-developed surface sampling tools that were based on Apollo-era designs.
NASA’s Johnson Space Center designed and built two spacesuit prototypes, known as the Prototype Exploration Suite (PXS), for use in low- and zero-gravity, and the Z-2, which is testing mobility technology for surface exploration of Mars. NASA’s prototype suits focus on technology demonstrations for a planetary surface suit, improving suit fit and performance, and upgrades to the life support systems while minimizing the amount of equipment required to keep the suit operational.
The NDX-1 uses lightweight materials and is designed to let astronauts drill into the surface to gather samples, excavate rocks and conduct explorations of the Red Planet.
“Our intention is to advance the state-of-the-art in spacesuit designs and engineering and try to provide solutions for tomorrow’s explorers,” De Leon said.
“We are just trying to help NASA and the contractors to get an easier task when they start to look at other designs. If it’s a new joint that we contribute, or a way to close a suit or a new boot, then we will feel happy because we have played our part.”
After conducting tests throughout the American southwest and other desert areas, the researchers went to Florida to try it out in “Swamp Works”, an enclosed area filled with fine, talcum powder textured soil similar to that found on the moon and materials known to be on Mars.
“We’re glad to open our doors to the NDX-1 team,” said Jack Fox, chief of Kennedy’s science and technology projects division.
“Swamp Works is a one-of-a-kind facility, and we’re happy to help the team advance this technology that could ultimately benefit NASA and future explorers.”
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.