UND spacesuit rockets into cosmos

Fabric from ‘NDX-1’ spacesuit launched Wednesday for yearlong tests on International Space Station

Pablo de León

UND Space Studies Professor Pablo de León and colleagues test out his UND-developed NDX-1 spacesuit to see if space travelers can perform various tasks in harsh space environments, such as on the moon or Mars. Image courtesy of Pablo de León.

Pieces of fabric from the University of North Dakota-developed NDX-1 spacesuit were launched into space aboard a Northrop Grumman “NG CRS-11 Cygnus” Resupply Mission, on Wednesday, on its way to the International Space Station (ISS).

The launch took place at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Wallops is operated by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA selected five technologies to test as part of its Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE)-11 mission, including the NDX-1 spacesuit sample provided by the UND Space Studies Department.

The MISSE program provides long-term exposure of materials to the inhospitable environments of space environment, according to Pablo de León, a space studies professor at UND and primary inventor of the NDX-1 suit. All the materials are slated to remain in space for at least one year, allowing researchers to assess long-term impact of temperature extremes and radiation on their performance.

MISSE has been a successful part of ISS research since 2001, when its original flight hardware became the first payload to be installed on the outside of the space station.

In this centerspread photo taken from the November 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine, photographer Phillip Toledano captures UND Space Studies Associate Professor Pablo de León wearing the space suit he designed and constructed at UND in the “regolith chamber” at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Private partnership

The NDX-1 spacesuit sample will be part of an “Electrodynamic Dust Shield” experiment, with Carlos Calle, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as principal investigator.

Pablo de León

Pablo de Leon and his UND-developed NDX-1 suit. The first suit he built at UND hangs directly behind him.

The NDX-1 fabric sample aboard the ISS includes an innovative dust-mitigation technology, developed by de León and Kavya Manyapu, a UND alumna and adjunct professor in the Space Studies Department. Manyapu defended her doctoral thesis in 2017, becoming UND Space Studies’ first-ever PH.D. graduate.

Manyapu is an aerospace test engineer, who played a part in designing a commercial spacecraft for Boeing Company, and has been a member of the Mars Society research project that prepares humans for life on Mars someday.

“It’s really exciting to see samples based on my Ph.D. research launching to Space station as part of the MISSE platform,” Manyapu said. “The payload will provide critical data for furthering a novel technology to make sustainable human spaceflight exploration on the moon and Mars a reality. The technology will help to keep astronauts and space habitats safe from dust contamination. I look forward to continuing our research at UND and Dr. de León’s efforts to put humans back on the moon, and eventually, the first human footsteps on Mars.”

Tight deadlines

A view of Earth from the Northrup Grumman’s CRS-11 Cygnus spacecraft as it docks with the International Space Station. The spacecraft carried samples of a UND-developed spacesuit for yearlong testing aboard the space station. Image courtesy of NASA.

The fabric sample uses a new private-industry screen-printing technology that was developed specifically for the space mission.

“Due to the short time we had to test and fly this payload, we reached out to private industry and found Austin, Texas-based NovaCentrix Corp., which manufactures high-quality conductive inks and printed electronics,” de León said. “They were able to help us to print the screen we needed into the spacesuit fabric and deliver it in time to the Kennedy Space Center.”

Rudy Ghosh, an academic liaison with NovaCentrix, offered to test several conductive paints on the fabric and one of them was selected for the spaceflight.

“Since it will be exposed to space for one year, we needed to be sure it will not delaminate, so upon return, we can test it and see if the dust-repealing capabilities stay the same,” de León said. “This technology will be vital during lunar and Mars exploration.”

In other news

A team of three volunteers is scheduled to enter UND Space Studies’ Inflatable Lunar Mars Habitat (ILMH) at noon, Thursday, for the unit’s seventh NASA-funded “space” mission. The crew will reside inside and conduct a series of experiments and other scientific research until they exit the ILMH at noon, Thursday, May 9.

The crew comprises Peter Henson, a mission specialist, from Carrington, N.D.; Jared Peick, a mission specialist, from Penacook, N.H.; and Stefan Tomovic, mission commander, from Pretoria, South Africa. All three crew members are students in UND’s Space Studies Department, part of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Studies.

“This habitat is the only system of its kind in the nation on a university campus,” said Pablo de León, an Argentine aerospace engineer and professor in the Department of Space Studies. He’s also director of the UND Human Spaceflight Laboratory. De Leon noted that the project is funded by the North Dakota-NASA EPSCoR grant.

The ILMH project attracts students from around the world to join this prestigious scientific effort. Students are largely responsible for constructing, assembling, and maintaining the ILMH.

“Over the last few years, we have been upgrading the planetary habitat, and now, we have four research modules, plus the living quarters, which allow us to perform complex simulated missions,” De León said. “We are constantly receiving requests from external institutions who want to perform their experiments at UND. This project is positioning in the forefront of analog planetary research, as NASA is looking to return to the moon and travel to Mars.”

Travis Nelson, a research assistant with UND Space Studies and a veteran crew member of an earlier ILMH mission, said mission VII will focus largely on Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA), a specialized rover for transportation outside the Habitat; geology; microbiology; and exercise and human performance of the crew members.

Planned activities and research experiments:

  • Electroencephalographic (EEG) Neurocognitive and Physiological Monitoring
  • Technical fault analysis of space vehicle subsystems
  • Plant production (10 varieties) and assessing planetary soil compositions
  • Psychology, behavior and mental health in isolated environments
  • Task complexity and memory function
  • EVA Performance and Physiological Monitoring
  • 3-D printed habitat external tile repair
  • Planetary surface rovers for human assistance
  • High-altitude ballooning with crew assembled payloads
  • Retrieval and identification of soil and mineral samples
  • Analysis of soil samples for microbial life