U of R students moving us one step closer to surviving on Mars

By Krista Baliko Posted: May 27, 2019 8:30 a.m.

Wil J. Norton, software and electronics engineering student, Anwit Adhikari, physics student,  Vaughn Geber, software engineering student, and Hibba Syeda, industrial engineering student, at the Project Airlock Challenge at the University of British Columbia. The team members not able to attend include: Earl Labios, computer science student, Jay Patel, electronics engineering student, and Roman Yushchyk, psychology and computer science student.
Wil J. Norton, software and electronics engineering student, Anwit Adhikari, physics student, Vaughn Geber, software engineering student, and Hibba Syeda, industrial engineering student, at the Project Airlock Challenge at the University of British Columbia. The team members not able to attend include: Earl Labios, computer science student, Jay Patel, electronics engineering student, and Roman Yushchyk, psychology and computer science student. Photo: University of British Columbia Project Airlock Challenge organizers

NASA and its project Journey to Mars pledges to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. But it won’t be an easy trip given Mars’ low atmospheric pressure, which is less than one per cent of the Earth’s. But, after winning a year-long competition, a group of University of Regina undergraduate students may have brought us one step closer to making the arduous journey a reality.

A University of British Columbia competition called Project Airlock Challenge asked university teams from across to Canada to design, then prototype, a functional airlock in an effort to help make Mars a sustainable habitat for humans.

Much like SCUBA divers who must make decompression stops as they return from the depths of the ocean to the water’s surface, an airlock is an airtight pressurized chamber that people enter to allow them to move between environments with differing pressures.

Wil Norton, a U of R software systems engineering student who is minoring in electronics engineering, is a

BION

A rendering of the
U of R team’s BION
Airlock System design.
Render of the airlock
design by Wil Norton

spokesperson for the team. He says designing the airlock, which they call the BION Airlock System, was phase one of the competition.

“We had one year to work on and complete the design phase,” says Norton, who adds that he’s excited that this project has the capacity to impact space travel. 

At the outset, the University of Regina team – which is called RAM Techcon – consisted of about 35 students. Throughout the year, that number dwindled to ten dedicated students. The multidisciplinary team worked together to complete the design. Then, because of budget constraints, four students took the final product to UBC to compete.

“I was quite nervous about the competition, but, at the same time, I was confident in the merits of our design,” says Norton.

That confidence was well placed.

“I’m proud of what we accomplished and I’m excited to move on to phase two, which is the prototype development. Because,” he says, “if travel to Mars is inevitable within a decade, then there still a lot of work to be done before humans can set foot on it.”

Now the team has one year to build their design.

“We have already started on the next stage of the project and will keep working until the next competition in 2020.”

And with industry watching what the students are creating, Norton says this is an incredible opportunity.

“I always wanted to get involved in the aerospace industry. And while I know that building the rockets is left to the experts, looking into how to support life on Mars is a perfect project for undergraduate students. And the University of Regina is helping solve a piece of that puzzle.”

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