NDX Planetary Exploration
System First Test Starts This Weekend!
Miguel Pedraza, University & Public Affairs
international test of three spacesuit systems locked in the University of North
Dakota (UND) as a key player in planning for future long-term missions in
UND was the
only university on the planet invited to participate in the European test
program held in October. UND’s Department of Space Studies team flawlessly
showcased its ingenious, team-built NDX spacesuit system under the glare of
specialize in spacesuits for surface exploration,” said de León said, an
aerospace engineer from Argentina and director of UND’s Human Spaceflight
Laboratory, all part of the space studies in the John D. Odegard School of
Aerospace Sciences. “They’re specifically enhanced for locomotion --for walking
and for manually manipulating objects, tools, etc., on a planet’s surface. We
want to improve mobility, to allow freer walking and working on a planet with
lower gravity than Earth’s.”
European test was part of an ongoing international effort to prepare for an
eventual human expedition to Mars.
UND-based lab is the home of the NASA-funded NDX Planetary Exploration
System. But we’re not just talking spacesuits—NDX is a whole system for
the surface exploration of planets such as Mars.
designing, planning and building the whole system, including the suits, the
inflatable habitat, the air locks and rover,” de León said. “We developed the
research infrastructure to simulate an entire planetary base scenario, and it
puts us in the forefront of lunar and Mars mission planning.”
De León, who
spent many years in industry working on spacesuit design and has penned several
books about manned spaceflight, says UND is uniquely qualified for the work
“We have in
place the analog infrastructure that will allow planners of long missions
to do tests right here at UND,” he said.
The UND NDX
team set up a trial run this fall, putting four specially selected students
into the system's pressurized inflatable habitat for 10 consecutive days. The
trial, funded by NASA, was designed to simulate a surface exploration mission
on the Moon or Mars. It included tests of the habitat's life support and other
also designed the trial to see how well the system, including the habitat,
rover, spacesuits and airlocks worked together. This was a prelude to a much
longer trial scheduled for spring 2014.
added that NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has been involved in just about
every U.S. space mission, recently sent a package of other experiments to try
out in UND’s pressurized, inflatable habitat.
foresees that UND will be testing and working a lot more with NASA, which has
funded his team’s work, as well as with the space industry and international
partners to make these missions a reality.
“The idea is
that as a university, we’re going to create useful knowledge,” de León
said. “That includes producing prototypes such as our NDX system that are
useful to NASA and the companies that actually build suits. We produce the
UND’s influence in the spacesuit system sphere is a recent second edition of U.S.
Spacesuits, a book by Kenneth Thomas, a historian and engineer at
Hamilton-Sundstrand (HS), one of the two primary builders of U.S. spacesuits.
In that book, one of UND’s NDX suits is prominently featured in photos and
One of the
key elements of equipment for a future human expedition to Mars will be a
spacesuit that allows astronauts to roam the Martian surface. Martian
explorers will face a bitterly cold, dusty environment with a thin atmosphere
of mainly carbon dioxide. They’ll have to rely on their spacesuits to provide
oxygen to breathe and a comfortable temperature, pressure and atmosphere in
which to work.
the mobility issue, de León says, comparing the NDX suit with the current day
“zero-g suit” worn in outer space by astronauts doing spacewalks while tethered
to the International Space Station (ISS).
suits are almost immobile from the waist down because you don’t need any
walking capabilities in that environment, even though it’s called a space
‘walk,’” de León said. “All they have to be able to do is attach their feet
into a foot restraint located at various points on the ISS.
“What we try
to do is the inverse of that: we aim to develop suits where you can use your
legs and arms in order to facilitate your work on a planet’s surface.”
De León said that the NDX team is designing and building suits that can be
serviced and repaired on the planetary surface. Most of the suits
developed, so far, are Earth-servicing only, designed to be used in low-Earth
orbit, such as on ISS, and then taken back to Earth after a couple of space
“But for a
mission to Mars, which is expected to last at least three years, you can’t take
your suits back for repairs or maintenance. You have to be able to that right
where you are—on Mars,” he said.
De León sees
space exploration—including a trip to Mars—happening relatively soon.
not going to do it one country at a time,” he said. “It’s not necessarily going
to be done by the United States all by itself. Because of the cost and
complexity of a crewed mission to Mars, you’ll see a consortium of partners
that have already been successful in space, working together to get to that
De León sees
the NDX system development as a key player in the development of future space
missions, including a trip to Mars, as underscored by the invitation from
Europe to participate in the recent test.
puts us in a very interesting place,” de León said. “We have a starting point
to become a university known globally for having a unique system that we can
offer organizations such as NASA.”
De León said
that for students on his team – both undergraduates and graduates – the work is
it’s about our students—because we’re very hands-on oriented and because I have
extensive experience in the space industry, I believe that our students should
not just be working from a stack of texts and papers,” said de León. “Our
students come to us from all over the world because they’re excited about the
research we’re doing here.”