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Students design inflatable heat shield for NASA Mars mission contest

From left to right, Levi Li, Henry Kwan and Samuel Tedesco – all senior mechanical engineering majors at UB – are among the finalists for a NASA-sponsored contest to design a heat shield for future missions to Mars. Credit: Douglas Levere

By CORY NEALON

Published April 21, 2016

“To have NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace evaluate our plan is really an honor.”
Henry Kwan, student
Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

The path for humans to Mars could be paved by UB students.

A team of five UB student engineers have developed plans for a massive inflatable heat shield designed to protect spacecraft – and potentially astronauts – from the white-hot heat that objects encounter upon entering the red planet’s atmosphere.

The team’s work impressed NASA and partner organization, the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), which last fall called upon college students nationwide to submit proposals for a contest called the Breakthrough, Innovate, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

Earlier this spring, NASA and NIA chose the top four plans, which came from students at UB, Georgia Tech, Purdue University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Now, competition organizers are flying the teams to NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, where they will present their plans to a panel of judges on April 25-26.

The winning team will be offered paid summer internships at NASA Langley and, potentially, the chance to flight test their concept.

Inflatable heat shield rendering

“To have NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace evaluate our plan is really an honor. We’re looking forward to hearing their feedback and, of course, spending time at NASA Langley,” said Henry Kwan, a UB senior mechanical engineering major from Buffalo who helped create the plan.

In addition to Kwan, the other team members are: Anish Kumar, who graduated in 2015; Levi Li, a senior from Queens; Anibal Martinez, who graduated in 2015; and Samuel Tedesco, a senior from Verona Beach. All are students in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and all except Kumar will travel to Virginia.

Contest organizers asked the teams to develop plans for a heat shield – hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD), in NASA speak – much larger than what NASA recently used to land the rover Curiosity on Mars. (The Curiosity heat shield, at roughly 15 feet in diameter, protected the car-sized rover from the 3,800-degree Fahrenheit temperatures it encountered upon entering the atmosphere of Mars.)

The contest dovetails with NASA’s ongoing efforts to develop a new class of heat shields to carry vehicles that weigh up to 30 tons (by contrast, Curiosity weighed 1 ton) to Mars. Potentially, NASA plans to use this type of heatshield for its planned human missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Kemper Lewis, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is the team’s faculty advisor. He praised the students’ work.

“Our students’ effort on this project has been incredible, and the early results, being among four colleges chosen from a nationwide pool, indicate that NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace agree,” he said. “This is a fantastic example of the skills and tenacity that our students are known for, and of the opportunities available to students at UB.”