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Mars space suit unveiled

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 northern central state?s wildest terrain for a simulated mission to Mars.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 10:46 IST

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 northern central 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.

The suit was formally unveiled on Saturday in a craterlike area surrounded by buttes in North Dakota Badlands, the highly eroded landscape that researchers say resembles Martian terrain.

It took about 20 minutes for Sau to put on the 21-kilogramme, two-piece space suit with the help of two others. Then he walked out of a van, smiling and waving to a small crowd and giving a thumbs up.

He explored prairie brush, pulling equipment in a small red wagon and collecting rocks. “This is a very small project,” Sau said. “But it was well executed, and it’s the first step toward something bigger and better.”

The suit was developed in just over a year by students from the University of North Dakota, said project manager Pablo de Leon, an aerospace engineer at UND. 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 with the price tag of $22 million each for space shuttle suits, he said.

The suit, with a transparent helmet, rigid upper body section and backpack 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. The inner pressure suit is covered with what looks like a blue coverall.