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NASA crowdsources durability testing, offers $15,000 in prizes

NASA is run by a lot of smart people, but sometimes the smartest thing you can do is ask for some help. That’s what NASA is doing in its quest to design the next generation of space suit technology. NASA is asking the public to come up with ideas on how to test prototype Mars space suit materials for durability without actually going all the way to Mars. The agency plans to give away $15,000 in prizes for the best ideas.
We’re all familiar with the current space suit design, which has been used by astronauts for decades. The problem with these pieces of equipment is that they’re optimized for low-Earth orbit. They have some damage resistance, but they aren’t built to be worn while walking around on the surface of a planet, or anywhere really — there’s no walking at all in low-Earth orbit. They’ll need new suits.
Any future Mars mission would likely include many extravehicular activities (EVAs). If you manage to safely land a crew on mars after months in space, they won’t just take one stroll on the surface and go home. There’s serious science to be done out there, and that means a real risk or damage to suits during EVAs. NASA has reason to be worried too. Some astronauts who walked on the moon reported damage to the outer layers of their suits that impaired the insulation. They were only a few days from home, but Mars is much more remote.

Analysis of the Apollo suits by NASA has revealed that the abrasiveness of lunar dust likely caused the damage. Mars could be even more perilous in this respect. It’s quite dusty, and it has an atmosphere that can blow that dust around at upward of 60 miles per hour. The terrain of Mars is also much more complex with plenty of rocky outcroppings to run into.
NASA doesn’t have a standard way to test for this sort of damage, thus the crowdsourcing approach. The agency suggests interested parties consider innovative ways to subject materials to a simulated Martian environment. The procedures will be judged based on how well they can be matched to fiber damage of samples exposed to lunar dust, which is the closest analog we currently have. The proposed processes should also be able to quantify the number and size of particles that migrate through the fabrics and analyze physical damage in the form of cuts, tears, and so on.
NASA expects to make up to three awards of $5,000 each for a total of $15,000. The challenge is being run by NineSigma Inc. as part of the NASA Tournament Lab. This program has previously solicited suggestions for improving email in space and the design of reusable seals for use in EVAs. Submissions have to be in by December 3rd and winners will be announced in late January 2016.
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