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University of Regina team hoping to help send humans to Mars with new airlock prototype

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A team from the University of Regina, known as Celestial Labs, has created a national award-winning airlock prototype that they hope will allow humans to visit Mars in the future.

“An airlock is a bridge between two environments that need to stay separate,” Anwit Adhikari, the division head for structure and design at Celestial Labs, said. “An airlock is essentially a small room that is attached outside the spacecraft so if you’re trying to exit into the void of space or Mars, you’d first enter [the airlock] and the doors would close, then you’d open the other door an go outside, therefore keeping the atmosphere isolated.”

The team had to consider a number of factors when building a structure for Mars. Those include, but are not limited to, a structure immune to radiation, wind loads, gravity, temperature and pressure.

“This will be one of the first operational Martian airlock [prototypes] in Canada’s history if we do it right,” Adhikari said. “I never thought we would get this far.”

They also had to ensure the airlock would be safe for use on Mars.

“Previous airlocks would just be inflatables because there was no gravity. Astronauts could essentially float outside,” he said. “Because Mars has a non negligible gravity, and astronauts will be walking in there, it needs to have a structure that can hold the shape of the airlock.”

He said this airlock also has an electronic system that is as simple as possible because of radiation levels.

Finally, the fabric used for the airlock has to stand up to the environment. Mylar and aerogel are used for insulation purposes. The polymer being used to give the airlock structure inside is still private information to the team.

Celestial Labs first started working on the prototype in 2018, when the University of British Columbia announced a national competition to see which school could design and build the best airlock for Mars.

“This was taken in light of the consideration the Elon Musk is planning to do a man mission to Mars in the next few years,” Adhikari said.

The competition had two phases. The first was held in 2019 and was focused on design. In 2021, phase two focused on a built prototype. Celestial Labs from the University of Regina won both.

“I’m just really proud that a small group from an underdog university can beat all the big shots of the University of Waterloo and the University of Toronto,” Samuel Reddekop, the chief of electronics design with Celestial Labs, said.

The team originally set out just to win the competition, but because of their years of work and success, their sights are now set even higher.

“Because we designed the airlock with real constraints in mind, somewhere along the line we thought maybe this is a technology that the industry could appreciate or find use for,” Adhikari said.

Within the next few months, the team will complete the prototype. They then plan to present it to industry professionals.

“We don’t expect that the whole airlock will be used by the industry, but we are hopeful that certain subsystems that we worked on for three years now will be applicable to certain aspects,” he said. “The most optimistic target would be that it would actually be used in Mars. We will work as hard as we can to get there, but in the event that that doesn’t happen, we are hoping it will find some use in earth-like terrestrial applications.

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