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U of R team’s award-winning design may help humans visit Mars

A rendering of the airlock designed by a team of University of Regina students. Wil Norton / University of Regina

A University of Regina team has won the first phase of a nationwide contest challenging students to help keep humans safe while visiting Mars.

Started by the University of British Columbia, the Project Airlock Challenge asked university students across Canada to find solutions for Mars’ extremely low air pressure, non-breathable atmosphere, cold temperatures and hazardous soil.

“Without an airlock, with such a substantial pressure change, people would probably end up getting crushed,” said ‘Ram TechCon Aerotronics Innovators’ team member Hibba Syeda. “The airlock will gradually increase the pressure, and decrease it as well while you’re going outside and will also filter out all the bad air and good air while you’re going in and out.”

Syeda started Ram TechCon after being contacted by UBC about a year ago. The team, consisting of students studying sciences, engineering and business competed with over 20 other schools in the challenge. Syeda believes their team stood out because of their lightweight, inexpensive design.

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“The biggest challenge of space travel is transporting materials into space, so we wanted a significantly light design. It weighed in at 220 kilograms. The total cost that we estimate for production is around $14,000, $20,000 max.”

READ MORE: NASA will send an autonomous helicopter to Mars in 2020

Phase two of the project involves constructing a real-life working prototype of the airlock. The team has a year to do that, at which point they’ll need to haul it out to UBC for the final round of judging.

The airlock will be constructed with materials like plastic, mylar and cryogenic aerogel, and will have a volume of 8.7 m³. It will be collapsible and future astronauts would be able to assemble it on-site in about five minutes.

Construction will be a big endeavour, but Syeda says the biggest hurdle to bringing it all together will be finding funding.

“Right now, our biggest challenge is finding a sponsor.”

READ MORE: Trump seeks additional $1.6B for NASA with goal of returning to the moon by 2024

Back in 2010, NASA announced a goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

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Syeda said she’s had her eyes on the skies since she heard about those goals in Grade 6. Her class held a science competition to help learn about Mars.

“I ended up winning and I got an astronaut ice cream! After that, I was just hooked. I got really into space exploration.”

But as for whether she’d ever test out the airlock herself on the red planet, she isn’t so sure.

“The thought of leaving all of humanity behind is a bit scary for me. But I support space exploration. Coming up with ideas for space exploration is something I’m passionate about.”

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