Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
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samedi 22 mai 2004

If men ever land on Mars, what will they wear to protect them from radiation, micrometeors and the very cold climate? Several students from the University of Alberta tackled the problem and designed space suits for Mars. Their prototype suit is composed of twelve layers of materials, including one made from Demron, a new nanotechnology material developed by a Florida-based company, Radiation Shield Technologies. The students and their professor, Dr. Barry Patchett, think their suit will largely be ready before real missions to Mars start in about twenty years. They also hope that NASA will pick their design.

How did these students work?

The three materials engineering students -- Jennifer Marcy, Ann Shalanski, and Matthew Yarmuch -- 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.

By the way, the prototype suit weighs only 21 kilograms -- on Earth.

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).
Space suit for Mars: Cross section of the garment Here is a three-dimensional cross-sectional view of the multilayer thermomechanical garment (TMG), with its twelve layers (Credit: University of Alberta).
Space suit for Mars: Bearing apparatus And this is a rendering of the bearing apparatus of the future space suit (Credit: University of Alberta).

Now the students hope that NASA will pick their design for real missions to Mars.

"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."

For more information, their research work was published by the Journal of Materials Engineering and Performance in its April 1, 2004 issue (Issue 13, Page 208) under the name "Material Choices for Mars." Here are the links to the abstract and to the full report (PDF format, 10 pages, 264 KB). Below is the text of the abstract.

The environment on Mars presents many unique challenges when designing a space suit for use during human exploration. These include a micro-vacuum atmosphere of mostly carbon dioxide, wide temperature fluctuations, and physical hazards ranging from dust storms to micrometeoroids and radiation. Previous NASA suits were analyzed prior to choosing new materials for a Mars suit, using Ashby criteria where applicable, and specific commercial information where necessary. Liquid cooling and ventilation, pressure, and thermomechanical garments were developed, using multiple materials and layers in each. Further materials choices were made for bearing materials to allow movement while ensuring sealing integrity of the suit. The overall mass for the design (without life support systems) is just less than 21 kg, significantly (and necessarily) less than earlier designs for lunar and orbital applications.

Sources: University of Alberta news release, May 21, 2004; and various websites

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