Prototype Mars Space Suit Being Tested in North Dakota Badlands

Fabio Sau says moving from his native Italy to attend the University of North Dakota was like "coming to another planet" — and now he's using the state's wildest terrain for a simulated mission to Mars.

Sau is the guinea pig for an experimental Mars space suit that he and about 40 other students from five North Dakota schools developed under a $100,000 grant from NASA.

He has been wearing the 47-pound, two-piece suit around the North Dakota Badlands, the highly eroded landscape in the western part of the state that researchers say resembles Martian terrain.

"It's beautiful," the space studies graduate student said of the suit as he put it through its paces Friday night for editors at the North Dakota Newspaper Association.

The suit was developed in just over a year by students from the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State, Dickinson State, the state College of Science and Turtle Mountain Community College, said project manager Pablo de Leon, an aerospace engineer at UND.

The NASA grant went to the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium of schools to train students in space travel support systems and to do it as a cooperative effort among teams, according to the consortium's Web site.

De Leon, 41, said NASA got a bargain with the North Dakota project. Suit components developed by the students have been the basis for three patent applications so far, he said. And the grant is a tiny fraction compared to the price tag of $22 million each for space shuttle suits, he said.

The suit, with a transparent helmet, rigid upper body section and back pack holding communications gear, is "essentially a self-contained spacecraft," de Leon said.

It is designed so the wearer can walk up a 45-degree slope. The gloves, which must withstand low pressure and cold, have enough dexterity for tying a shoe, Sau said. Its boots are modified cold-weather hunting boots.

While it is heavy for exploring the Badlands, it would weigh only about 16 pounds in the lower gravity of Mars.

The inner pressure suit is covered with what looks like a blue coverall.

The color was chosen to make it stand out, de Silva said.

"The dust on Mars is red. If a white suit gets dirty, you wouldn't be able to differentiate an astronaut on the surface," he said.

Most of the students from the five colleges who worked on the complex project never met until after the design was completed, said Jennie Untener, a UND space studies graduate student and space suit systems manager. They communicated mostly by phone or over the Internet.

"It's good the schools were able to work together," said Untener, who's working on a thesis on the psychology of long-term space travel. "Other times, it's more of a competition."

While a usable suit would have to sustain an astronaut for several hours of exploration on the surface, the students' design did not address the issue of Mother Nature's call.

"You've got to hold it," de Leon said.