Team of U of Regina students hope competition-winning prototype could be used on Mars

·2 min read
Wil Norton, left, said one of the most difficult parts of building the airlock system prototype was managing the weight. Alongside him, left to right, are team members Anwit Adhikari, Samuel Reddekop and Megan Turluk. Not pictured: Jay Patel.  (Submitted by Wil Norton - image credit)
Wil Norton, left, said one of the most difficult parts of building the airlock system prototype was managing the weight. Alongside him, left to right, are team members Anwit Adhikari, Samuel Reddekop and Megan Turluk. Not pictured: Jay Patel. (Submitted by Wil Norton - image credit)

A team of current and former University of Regina students have spent years designing, developing and tweaking a shiny prototype of an airlock, with hopes it could land on Mars — and now they're nearly done, with a win in a national design competition to show for it.

The airlock is meant to provide a bridge between the different atmospheric conditions of Mars and a habitat that could be erected on the Red Planet, allowing future astronauts to safely travel between the two environments.

Jay Patel works on some of the structural components for Celestial Laboratories — the name the design and engineering group gave themselves — and is one of the five students fostering astronomical ambitions to help sustain life on a planet beyond Earth.

"If you think about it, all the forces on Mars are, in a way, trying to kill human life or any living lifeform," Patel told host Stefani Langenegger in an interview with CBC Radio's Morning Edition.

That means taking into account the difference in pressure, temperature and radiation in their design build.

Their prototype, named the Bion Airlock System, stemmed from a competition called Project Airlock that called on universities across the country — with some submissions coming internationally, according to team members — to research, design and manufacture an airlock.

Earlier this month, the Regina group were crowned champions for their design.

About 35 people contributed to the project at some point or another, but only five members continued working on it to completion.

"I was always fascinated by getting beyond the horizon," Patel said. "If you ask any person what was the most exciting thing achieved by human beings, [they] would say 'Going to the moon and coming back.'

"It's the biggest achievement as a species for us and it always inspires me."

Once the prototype is complete, the team plans to showcase it to industry experts for consultation. They hope some design aspects of their product — or all of it — will be sent to Mars before the decade is over.

The idea that something he made could end up on another planet is "surreal" to Wil Norton, responsible for co-ordinating the manufacturing of the airlock system.

Both he and Patel said they spent upwards of 30 hours a week working on the project at points, continuing to work on the airlock design while working toward their engineering degrees.

At first, the potential for their design to be shipped to Mars in some form seemed like a far-off dream. But as the competition developed further, that dream became more tangible.

Submitted by Wil Norton
Submitted by Wil Norton

As an engineering student, Norton said the project was challenging, but that's what drove him to pursue it.

"It's still hard to wrap our head around, but it really justifies the hours that we put into this project," Norton said.

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