Students design inflatable heat shield for NASA Mars mission contest

Levi Li, Henry Kwan and Samuel Tedesco

A team of five student engineers 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 Mars' atmosphere.

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

Contest organizers asked the teams to develop plans for a heatshield much larger than what NASA recently used to land the rover Curiosity on Mars. The contest dovetails with NASA’s ongoing efforts to develop a new class of heatshields to carry vehicles that weigh up to 30 tons to Mars.

UB's was among the four top plans chosen by NASA and NIA, along with Georgia Tech, Purdue University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The teams presented their plans to a panel of judges at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

“To have NASA and the NIA evaluate our plan is really an honor,” said Henry Kwan, a senior mechanical engineering major who helped create the plan.

Other team members were seniors Levi Li and Samuel Tedesco, and Anish Kumar and Anibal Martinez, who graduated in 2015. Kemper Lewis, professor and chair, was the team’s faculty advisor. All are from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.