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Students finish Mars spacesuit test

Fabio Sau tests an experimental space suit in the North Dakota badlands on May 6.
Fabio Sau tests an experimental space suit in the North Dakota badlands on May 6.Will Kincaid / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fabio Sau says moving from his native Italy to attend the University of North Dakota was like "coming to another planet" — and over the past week he used the state's wildest terrain for a simulated mission to Mars.

Sau was the guinea pig for an experimental Mars spacesuit that he and about 40 other students from five North Dakota schools developed under a $100,000 grant from NASA. 

The suit was formally unveiled Saturday, on the last day of a test in a craterlike area surrounded by buttes in the North Dakota Badlands, the highly eroded landscape that researchers say resembles Martian terrain.

It took about 20 minutes for Sau to put on the 47-pound (21-kilogram), two-piece spacesuit with the help of two others.  Then he walked out of a van, smiling and waving to a small crowd and giving a thumbs-up.  He explored prairie brush and cactus, pulling equipment in a small red wagon and collecting rocks.

"This is a very small project," Sau said.  "But it was very well executed, and it's the first step toward something bigger and better."

Developed in a year
The suit was developed in just over a year by students from the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State, Dickinson State, the state College of Science and Turtle Mountain Community College, said project manager Pablo de Leon, an aerospace engineer at UND.

The NASA grant went to the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium of schools to train students in space travel support systems and to do it as a cooperative effort among teams, according to the consortium's Web site.

De Leon, 41, said NASA got a bargain with the North Dakota project.  Suit components developed by the students have been the basis for three patent applications so far, he said.  And the grant is a tiny fraction compared with the price tag of $22 million each for space shuttle suits, he said.

The suit, with a transparent helmet, rigid upper body section and backpack holding communications gear, is "essentially a self-contained spacecraft," de Leon said.

It is designed so the wearer can walk up a 45-degree slope.  The gloves, which must withstand low pressure and cold, have enough dexterity for tying a shoe, Sau said.  Its boots are modified cold-weather hunting boots.

Weighs 16 pounds ... on Mars
While it is heavy for exploring the Badlands, it would weigh only about 16 pounds (7.3 kilograms) in the lower gravity of Mars. It has an undergarment made of advanced fireproofing material.

Mike Zietz, an NDSU junior monitoring the temperature of the spacesuit Saturday, said it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) inside the suit and 70 degrees F (21 degrees C) inside the helmet.  "People think engineering is boring or kind of boring, but this is exciting and motivating," Zietz said.

The inner pressure suit is covered with what looks like a blue coverall.

The color was chosen to make it stand out, said Shan de Silva, chairman of UND's Department of Space Studies.  "The dust on Mars is red.  If a white suit gets dirty, you wouldn't be able to differentiate an astronaut on the surface," he said.

Most of the students from the five colleges who worked on the complex project never met until after the design was completed, said Jennie Untener, a UND space studies graduate student and spacesuit systems manager.  They communicated mostly by phone or over the Internet.

"It's good the schools were able to work together," said Untener, who's working on a thesis on the psychology of long-term space travel.  "Other times, it's more of a competition."

While a usable suit would have to sustain an astronaut for several hours of exploration on the surface, the students' design did not address the issue of Mother Nature's call.  "You've got to hold it," de Leon said.