University of North Dakota Faculty/Staff Newsletter

Spacesuit team showcased in new global test program

UND's NDX planetary exploration system was recently invited to participate in a new international test series dubbed "World Space Walk 2013."  NDX_spacesuit_test_(1)

The test series took place earlier this month as a highlight of World Space Week 2013, which this year has the theme of 'Exploring Mars, Discovering Earth'.

“It was certainly a great honor to work with an international team on this project,” said Pablo de León, an aerospace engineer, faculty member in the Department of Space Studies, part of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. De León is director of the UND Human Spaceflight Lab, which is the home of the NDX planetary exploration system, including several spacesuits, a rover and an inflatable habitat.

The tests were designed and led by the Austrian Space Forum, which also provided the mission control center for the test campaign. The spacesuit experiments were carried out in Austria, North Dakota and Utah, with additional support from France.

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. For the first time, three Mars analogue suit development teams--including UND Space Studies' NDX team-performed simultaneous experiments, coordinated from a single mission control center.

The experiments are a first step in developing a universal standard for comparing Mars analogue suits in terms of the impact they have on the agility and dexterity of the suit wearers.

Explorers on the surface of Mars will face a cold, dusty environment with a thin atmosphere of mainly carbon dioxide. Away from any settlement on an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), they will need to rely on their spacesuit to provide oxygen to breathe and a comfortable temperature, pressure and atmosphere in which to work.

"In order to provide the safe environment needed by astronauts, spacesuits can be cumbersome and heavy," said experiment designer Alexander Soucek of the Austrian Space Forum. "If future mission planners are to select the right suit for the right expedition, they need to have independent data for comparing and evaluating suits created by different teams.”

The 'World Space Walk' spacesuit testers performed agility and mobility tasks wearing the following equipment: the NDX-2 suit developed by the UND Aerospace Human Spaceflight Laboratory; the Aouda.X suit developed by the Austrian Space Forum; and several analog suits at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

“We were able to integrate our systems easily and work cooperatively on a scientifically valuable project, learning a lot from each other,” said de León. “This test series once again showed that space, and in particular the human exploration of Mars, should be an international venture where we can all benefit from each other’s expertise.”

De León, who spent many years in industry working on spacesuit design, says UND is uniquely qualified to work on analog simulation for lunar and Mars missions.

“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,” said de León, whose student team is preparing a new UND NDX spacesuit exhibit for the addition to the North Dakota Historical Society’s museum in Bismarck. “I can foresee that we will be doing a lot of testing in the coming years and working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—which has funded a lot of our work—and with the space industry and international partners to make these missions a reality.”

The French deep-sea diving specialists Comex also participated in the recent tests by monitoring telemetry data from the suits.

The World Space Walk suit testers performed the following three experimental activities wearing their Mars analogue spacesuits:

  • Complete an obstacle course. Erect a tripod. Mount a gnomon (sundial) on tripod.
  • Complete an obstacle course. Take a camera from the spacesuit’s pocket. Take pictures of feet and horizon pointing north, south, east and west.
  • Complete an obstacle course. Take out a sample bag, collect a rock sample and place in the bag. Label the sample bag and place in container.

De León, who spent many years in industry working on spacesuit design, says UND is uniquely qualified to work on analog simulation for lunar and Mars missions.

“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,” said de León, whose student team is preparing a new UND NDX spacesuit exhibit for the addition to the North Dakota Historical Society’s museum in Bismarck.

“I can foresee that we will be doing a lot of testing in the coming years and working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—which has funded a lot of our work—and with the space industry and international partners to make these missions a reality,” said de León.