Prototype Mars space suit unveiled in North Dakota Badlands

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 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 (Ђ78,815) grant from NASA. The suit was formally unveiled Saturday in a craterlike area surrounded by buttes in the North Dakota Badlands, the highly eroded landscape that researchers say resembles Martian terrain.

It took about 20 minutes for Sau to put on the 47-pound (21.15-kilogram), 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 and cactus, pulling equipment in a small red wagon and collecting rocks.

"This is a very small project," Sau said. "But it was very 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, North Dakota State, Dickinson State, the state College of Science and Turtle Mountain Community College, said project manager Pablo de Leon, an aerospace engineer at UND.

The NASA grant went to the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium of schools to train students in space travel support systems and to do it as a cooperative effort among teams, according to the consortium's Web site.

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 (Ђ17.34 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.

While it is heavy for exploring the Badlands, it would weigh only about 16 pounds (7.2 kilograms) in the lower gravity of Mars. It has an undergarment made of advanced fireproofing material.

Mike Zietz, an NDSU junior monitoring the temperature of the space suit Saturday, said it was about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) inside the suit and 70 degrees (21.11 degrees Celsius) inside the helmet.

"People think engineering is boring or kind of boring, but this is exciting and motivating," Zietz said, reports AP.

O.Ch.