Students fashion space suits for Mars

May 21, 2004

As if getting to Mars wasn't hard enough, astronauts also have to worry about what to wear when they arrive. Their concerns are not fashion pundits but exposure to micrometeor sandstorms, radiation, and a hyper-cold climate.

However, three undergraduate students at the University of Alberta--Jennifer Marcy, Ann Shalanski, and Matthew Yarmuch--addressed the problem in Dr. Barry Patchett's Materials Design 443 class and have published their findings in the Journal of Materials Engineering and Performance. Students in the class are asked to take something that already exists and improve its performance and design by using new materials.

Patchett said that the space suit for Mars is the first design created in the class that he felt could stand up to the peer review process required for publication. "It is the best project I've seen in over a decade," he said.

"I don't know why we decided to design a space suit," Yarmuch said. "Nothing like it had ever been designed in the class before, so I guess that was the main attraction."

The three materials engineering students began by studying, layer by layer, the space suits NASA developed for trips to the moon. Suits made for Mars, however, will require much more thought than the ones produced for the moon, Yarmuch said. "Mars has nothing for atmosphere. There's some carbon dioxide, but that's about it for gases."

Unlike Earth, Mars does not have a magnetosphere to protect it from radiation and meteors and micrometeors, and astronauts on Mars will also have to deal with average temperatures of -60C. In creating their design, the students tried to balance these concerns with the need to create a suit that the astronauts could move about in as they explored.

"The gravitational force on Mars is about one-third of that on Earth, so if you built the suit with lead to protect the astronauts from the radiation, it would still end up weighing a few hundred kilograms, and the poor guys wouldn't be able to move," Yarmuch said.

The suit includes ball bearings and bearing and compression rings, and one of the 12 layers of material the students incorporated into their design is Demron, a new polymeric created by a company called Radiation Shield Technologies (RST). As the students completed their theoretical design using computer-aided design software, they did not worry about costs, which "would have been very high" if they produced an actual suit, Yarmuch said.

"We asked RST for an estimate on the cost of Demron, but because it's such a new product and we were only asking them for a speculative price, they didn't even want to give us a number," Yarmuch said. "Ultimately, we designed [the suit] without concern for cost--we went cutting edge on everything."

Two of the reviewers on the editorial board for the Journal of Materials Engineering and Performance are from NASA, Patchett noted, so perhaps one day parts of the U of A students' space suit design will be incorporated into a suit built by NASA.

"That would be very cool," Yarmuch added. "The development of a real suit to be used on a real mission to Mars is probably still a couple of decades away at least, but I think our research will help point future researchers in the right direction."
-end-
Dr. Barry Patchett can be reached at 780-492-2604 or barry.patchett@ualberta.ca

University of Alberta

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