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Tu-Uyen Tran, Forum Communications Co., Published December 20 2010

UND tests spacesuit designed for Mars

The Mars spacesuit designed by UND is going to Antarctica for testing because Antarctica is a lot like Mars.

But first, they’re testing it at UND because North Dakota is a lot like Antarctica at this time of year.

If you were at the corner of 42nd Avenue South and University Way around noon Friday, you might have caught an odd glimpse: A spaceman with a backpack drill making holes in the lawn at Clifford Hall.

That was Pablo De Leon, an aerospace engineer with UND’s Space Suit Laboratory. NASA is planning to send his team to Antarctica to do some more drilling. The research topic is something like a bad joke: How many astronauts does it take to drill a hole in the ground? How long does it take?

The answers so far seem to be at least two, and a little longer than you’d think.

De Leon is working on the questions with Jon Rask, a Bismarck native who now works on astrobiology for NASA. If and when the space agency sends a manned mission to Mars, drilling holes in the ground will be a big part of the agenda because that’s where life would exist if it did exist, protected from ultraviolet radiation that bathes the planet’s surface.

Why bother with such seemingly trivial details? When you spend tens of billions of dollars to get to another planet, every ounce of gear, every second spent on the mission comes at great, great cost. Knowing the details tells NASA how much rock and soil sampling it can do given a certain number of astronauts and kinds of gear.

UND is one a few groups developing new spacesuits, and the NDX-2 model is designed specifically for exploration on the surface of planets.

The suits that most people are familiar with today are those used in orbit, at the International Space Station, for example. Those aren’t suitable for working on the surface because the legs are often very rigid, a better position for working in zero-gravity, according to De Leon, and they’d weigh a lot if there were gravity.

On Mars, everything weighs around a third of what it does on Earth, which means a 300-pound spacesuit is still going to be a lot to haul around all day, he said.

UND has tested the NDX-2 in various Mars-like environments, including the deserts of Utah, the North Dakota Badlands and glacial ridges in Walsh County, but not Antarctica, which is a lot more inaccessible.

De Leon and Rask said they’ll do more testing here, including working outside in the cold for a long period of time, and expect to head south toward the end of the Antarctic summer.

It’ll “only” be 20 below or 30 below, but getting there is a lot harder when six months of darkness begins as there are few flights in or out, Rask said.

Tu Uyen-Tran is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald