Three adventurous University of North Dakota graduate students are having the research opportunity of a lifetime this week, exploring the surface of the moon without leaving campus.
The students, part of UND Space Studies' NDX Planetary Exploration System research team, currently are on a simulated moon mission, living inside a pressurized inflatable habitat, or moon base, for 10 days as part of a trial funded by NASA. The students won't leave the protection of the NDX environment for the duration of the experiment, which includes exploring the world around them in specially designed UND space suits and driving an honest-to-goodness moon rover.
The trial includes tests of the habitat's life support and other engineering systems.
UND graduate students Travis Nelson, Tim Buli and Erica Dolinar were chosen for the mission, which is taking place near Clifford Hall on the west side of the UND campus.
Researchers also designed the trial to see how well the system, including the habitat, rover, spacesuits and airlocks work together. This is a prelude to a much longer trial scheduled for spring 2014.
Pablo De León, a UND Space Studies faculty member and lead investigator on the NDX project, foresees that UND will be testing and working a lot more with NASA as well as with the space industry and international partners to make lunar and Mars missions a reality.
"We're designing, planning and building the whole system, including the suits, the inflatable habitat, the air locks and rover," de León said. "We developed the research infrastructure to simulate an entire planetary base scenario, and it puts us in the forefront of lunar and Mars mission planning."
De León, a native of Argentina, is an aerospace engineer and director of UND's Human Spaceflight Laboratory. He says UND is uniquely qualified for the work ahead.
"We have in place the analog infrastructure that will allow planners of long missions to do tests right here at UND," he said.
Proof of UND's influence in the spacesuit system sphere is a recent second edition of U.S. Spacesuits, a book by Kenneth Thomas, a historian and engineer at Hamilton-Sundstrand (HS), one of the two primary builders of U.S. spacesuits. In that book, one of UND's NDX suits is prominently featured in photos and text.
Also, a recent international test of three spacesuit systems locked in UND as a key player in planning for future long-term missions in space.
UND was the only university on the planet invited to participate in the European test program held earlier this month. The UND team flawlessly showcased its ingenious, team-built NDX spacesuit system under the glare of media spotlights.
"They're specifically enhanced for locomotion ― for walking and for manually manipulating objects, tools, etc., on a planet's surface. We want to improve mobility, to allow freer walking and working on a planet with lower gravity than Earth's," de León said.
The European test was part of an ongoing international effort to prepare for an eventual human expedition to Mars.
No ordinary spacesuit
One of the key elements of equipment for a future human expedition to Mars will be a spacesuit that allows astronauts to roam the Martian surface. Martian explorers will face a bitterly cold, dusty environment with a thin atmosphere of mainly carbon dioxide. They'll have to rely on their spacesuits to provide oxygen to breathe and a comfortable temperature, pressure and atmosphere in which to work.
Then there's the mobility issue, de León says, comparing the NDX suit with the current day "zero-g suit" worn in outer space by astronauts doing spacewalks while tethered to the International Space Station (ISS).
"The ISS suits are almost immobile from the waist down because you don't need any walking capabilities in that environment, even though it's called a space 'walk,'" de León said. "All they have to be able to do is attach their feet into a foot restraint located at various points on the ISS.
"What we try to do is the inverse of that: we aim to develop suits where you can use your legs and arms in order to facilitate your work on a planet's surface."
In addition, De León said that the NDX team is designing and building suits that can be serviced and repaired on the planetary surface. Most of the suits developed, so far, are Earth-servicing only, designed to be used in low-Earth orbit, such as on ISS, and then taken back to Earth after a couple of space walks.
"But for a mission to Mars, which is expected to last at least three years, you can't take your suits back for repairs or maintenance. You have to be able to that right where you are ― on Mars," he said.
'An interesting place'
De León sees space exploration ― including a trip to Mars ― happening relatively soon.
"But we're not going to do it one country at a time," he said. "It's not necessarily going to be done by the United States all by itself. Because of the cost and complexity of a crewed mission to Mars, you'll see a consortium of partners that have already been successful in space, working together to get to that goal."
De León sees the NDX system development as a key player in the development of future space missions, including a trip to Mars, as underscored by the invitation from Europe to participate in the recent test.
"This all puts us in a very interesting place," de León said. "We have a starting point to become a university known globally for having a unique system that we can offer organizations such as NASA."
De León said that for students on his team ― both undergraduates and graduates ― the work is highly participatory.
"Ultimately, it's about our students ― because we're very hands-on oriented and because I have extensive experience in the space industry, I believe that our students should not just be working from a stack of texts and papers," said de León. "Our students come to us from all over the world because they're excited about the research we're doing here."
Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer
Left to right: UND graduate students Travis Nelson, Tim Buli and Erica Dolinar are conducting a space mission on campus.