UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Mission complete: Three UND astronauts conclude Mars simulation

Graduate students complete the 14th mission for UND Space Studies’ Inflatable Lunar-Mars Habitat

Tarun Bandemegala and Martina Dimoska exit the Inflatable Lunar-Mars Analog Habitat on a snowy Sunday, Nov. 6. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

It was chilly in mid-October when three UND graduate students entered the UND Space Studies’ Inflatable Lunar-Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH), but it was positively blustery when they came out on Sunday, Nov. 6.

The graduate students were on a 21-day-mission simulating an extended stay on Mars, and on Sunday, as snow flurries blew across the ground of the habitat west of Interstate 29, about 15 people gathered to watch their egress event.

When Tarun Bandemegala, the mission commander, opened the door to the structure people cheered—but after taking in the miserable weather conditions, he waved off the crowd and pretended to close the door, eliciting laughter from the celebrants.

A noticeably bearded Bandemegala said he was “feeling … cold!” but otherwise was doing well after completing the unusually lengthy mission.

Gupta and Dimoska.

Bandemegala and the other crew members, Pranika Gupta and Martina Dimoska, quickly invited the celebrants into the habitat for some out-of-the-wind chat about how they’d spent the previous three weeks. It was an almost party-like atmosphere with people walking around the habitat, chatting and generally catching up after their extended absence.

The astronauts said they wanted to get back into their old routines and sleep in their own beds. Gupta said she is looking forward to attending classes again, and food was also on her mind: “Spice,” she said, “I need spice,” while Dimoska said she wanted to get sushi, her “comfort food.”

But they also spoke of the mission itself.

“It was unreal,” Gupta said. “It was a great experience. The team is extremely helpful. Everybody made it so easy.”

The astronauts had several scientific or research components of the mission that kept them busy. One project required them to don an EEG-based data-collection system, which they wore while operating a drone.

“The EEG testing was where we were trying to understand how exactly the cognition of the astronauts will decline in space,” Bandemegala said.

Along with personal research interests, the astronauts carried out other projects such as growing microgreens in the habitat’s plant module (Bandemegala said they put the harvested greens on tacos). They also field tested the enhanced version of the UND NDX2-AT spacesuit, and, using the rover attached the habitat, made a few excursions in that vehicle as well.

Gupta and Bandemegala

They carried out all their research projects in a real-world, real-time scenario, with communications from Mission Control taking 40 minutes for messages to be sent back and forth. The time lag simulates the tens of millions of miles that communications signals will need to travel between Earth and Mars.

But not everything worked out so smoothly. For example, on the third day a piece of equipment that no one thought would fail actually did, Bandemagala said. It was a connector for two other pieces of equipment, and its failure put on hold an exercise study called CardioBreath. The study is a collaboration developed by Simon Fraiser University in partnership with the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and UND. It focuses on lung capacity, which can be used to inform on how much exercise astronauts need on long-duration space flights.

“Nobody expected that,” Bandemegala said about the failed connector.

But spirits were high on Sunday as UND researchers and graduate students spoke with the astronauts and walked through the habitat.

Sunday’s egress ceremony marks the end of manned missions there for the winter. A new mission is set to get underway in April. Until then, the astronauts will analyze the data they collected and discuss what equipment could be added to the module for other missions.

They also should have plenty of time to get sushi.