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UB students among finalists for NASA Mars competition

courtesy University at Buffalo

A team of five student engineers from the University at Buffalo will travel to Virginia to present their proposal for an important piece of a future Mars mission. The UB team is one of four finalists challenged with designing an inflatable heat shield that could protect tons of equipment, as well as a human crew.

Last fall, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, along with the National Institute of Aerospace, issued a challenge to college students to design an inflatable heat shield system that could protect a Mars-bound spacecraft.

The UB students taking part in this challenge are enrolled in the school's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. They are senior Henry Kwan, senior Levi Li, senior Samuel Tedesco, graduate student Anish Kumar and graduate student Anibal Martinez. 

"From the get-go, in the beginning, we wanted to be part of this challenge because we're working on something for future missions that will actually be applicable," said Kwan. "Our team is extremely excited to be part of this challenge." 

The UB team advanced beyond the white paper and technical report rounds to become one of four finalists. Also competing are teams from Georgia Tech, Purdue University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The winning side will  earn paid summer internships with NASA and a chance to see their work flight tested.

The challenges facing the student team include creating a shield which could withstand the intense heat of Martian atmospheric entry - approximately 3,800 degrees Fahrenheit - and endure for an estimated four minutes of a six-minute landing procedure. The shield would also need to be durable enough to hold 30 metric tons, or 30 times more than the system that helped bring the Curiosity rover safely to the Red Planet's surface.

There is also the matter of efficiency. The International Space Station was launched into space in pieces and assembled in orbit. Kwan and his teammates believe a mission would be more cost-efficient by using a heat shield system that can be stowed on a spacecraft that launches for Mars directly from Earth.

Credit NASA Public Domain
A view of the Mars Pathfinder shortly after it landed on the Red Planet in 1997. That craft used a series of airbags to land safely. A team of UB students is designing an inflatable heat shield system that would protect up to 30 metric tons of payload in a future Mars mission.

"In order to get the rocket off of Earth, the diameter has to be as small as possible for aerodynamic efficiency," he said. "The bigger it is, the more fuel we use and the more fuel we use, the heavier the entire rocket's going to be.

"Right now, our best option is to use the same rocket with something we can stow away and deploy before entry into Mars."

Inflatable technology has been used by NASA for previous Mars missions. The Mars Pathfinder probe, which landed on the planet in 1997, used a series of airbags to bounce the craft on the surface until it rolled to a stop, unfolded, and allowed a rover to emerge and begin its work. 

NASA is planning to deliver humans to Mars some time in the 2030s. Kwan said the UB team is excited about the chance to be part of history and represent Buffalo while doing so.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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