March 22, 2011

NASA Tests Mars Suit In Extreme Conditions

NASA scientists tested a spacesuit designed to be used on Mars during a week-long expedition in a remote Argentine base in Antarctica, Reuters reported on Monday.

Argentine aerospace engineer Pablo de Leon designed the $100,000 prototype NDX-1 space suit, which was put through its paces in frigid temperatures and winds of nearly 50 mph as scientists simulated the procedures astronauts would use to gather soil samples on the red planet.

"This was the first time we took the suit to such an extreme, isolated environment so that if something went wrong we couldn't just go to the store" and purchase a repair kit, said De Leon during an interview with Reuters.

More than 350 materials were used in the pressurized suit, such as strong honeycomb Kevlar and carbon fibers that lessen its weight without sacrificing resistance.

During the "Mars in Marambio" mission, named after the Argentine air force base, NASA scientists conducted simulated spacewalks, operated drills and gathered samples while wearing the gear.

De Leon himself wore the suit, which he said would make anyone feel claustrophobic with its helmet and integrated headset for communicating with the outside world.

The researchers chose Marambio because it offered easier access to permafrost than other Antarctic bases.

De Leon, head of the space suit laboratory at the University of North Dakota, said Antarctica was a perfect place for sample collection as it is one of the least contaminated places on earth, which would allow scientists to determine the potential impact of the suit.

"Mars is a mixture of many different environments: deserts, and temperatures and winds like in Antarctica," De Leon said.

"So we try to take bits of different places and try to see if our systems can withstand the rigors of Mars if we go there."

Last year, President Obama said it would be possible to conduct a manned mission to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s, with a landing to follow.

However, given NASA's shrinking budget such missions may be even more distant.  The U.S. National Research Council recommended this month that robotic missions to Mars and Jupiter's moon Europa should be the space agency's priorities in the coming years.

But De Leon is optimistic that astronauts will wear his space suit, or at least part of it, when they make their first landing on Mars.

"Even if just one bolt of our space suit or one tiny bit of our design makes it to Mars, I'll be more than happy," he said.


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