May 4, 2006
A North Dakota consortium is testing a Mars astronaut suit in the state's Badlands. The suit was developed with funds from NASA.
More than 2 years ago, President Bush announced an initiative to return astronauts to the lunar surface and, eventually, prepare them for a trip to Mars. While a return to the Moon is targeted between 2015 and 2020, no timetable yet outlines a voyage to the Red Planet. Even with the mission's vague details, a prototype suit appropriate for exploring the martian terrain is in development.
In March 2005, the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium (NDSGC) received $100,000 from NASA to design a Mars Planetary Suit. The group spent more than a year constructing the prototype.
On May 1, 2006, the NDSGC launched the field test with fitting and limited-mobility exercises. Group member Fabio Sau donned the suit for the maneuvers. The operations will continue through May 6, ending with a public demonstration. Despite cold and rainy weather, the group was able to test communications and the life-support system. Sau walked on a treadmill, wearing and not wearing the suit, to measure locomotion.
NASA outlined several requirements for the suit beyond surviving the martian environment: an astronaut is able to don the suit in less than 10 minutes, climb and descend a ladder, function safely in the suit unaided for at least 90 minutes, operate in the suit for 4 hours, and communicate to a remote location via audio and visual data, among others.
After the field test, the group will continue to tweak the suit.
"This is the final test, but since this is an experimental suit designed for planetary surfaces, we are going to continue working on it," Project Manager Pablo de Leon told Astronomy. "The idea is that this suit serves as a baseline for a new generation of planetary-science suits."