How do you build a tent fit for life on an asteroid?
A group of UW-Madison students answered that question to win a NASA competition to design and build the best space habitat.
The Badger X-Loft team beat teams from two other universities — Oklahoma State and Maryland — to win $10,000 and an opportunity to test the tent as part of a simulated astronaut mission.
"There's nothing that's been designed, that I know of, to go into space as an inflatable structure," said Fred Elder, a UW-Madison adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and engineering physics, who led the team. "They had to come up with this more or less from scratch."
The UW-Madison undergraduates built a prototype that can house four crew members for several days.
The climate-controlled interior includes a desk and chair for each crew member, porthole-shaped windows, and a second-story loft with sleeping quarters.
The structure had to be able to sustain side winds of up to 50 mph and weigh less than about 1,100 pounds.
Although there weren't similar designs for the students to borrow from, Elder did have one suggestion: He told them to look up photos of yurts, the domed structures traditionally used by nomads in central Asia.
"A 1,000-year-old design was the only thing we had to look at," said Jordan Wachs, an engineering mechanics and astronautics and physics major. "It was a starting point."
About 13 feet tall and 16 feet in diameter, the structure is made out of lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum and covered in a four-layer, nylon shell.
As one of three finalists, UW-Madison got $48,000 in seed funding from the National Space Grant Foundation. The team also got funding from campus departments, such as the Space Science Engineering Center, and donations from local businesses.
The students built and tested the prototype as part of a two-semester senior design course offered in engineering mechanics and astronautics.
The 14-member team consisted of engineering students, but also one student majoring in finance and one majoring in textile and apparel design.
Wachs said they were grateful to the fashion design major.
"She turned out to be fantastically helpful because none of us know how to sew," he said.
They displayed the prototype at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston from June 20 to 24.
For winning, the students get $10,000 to conduct desert field tests in Arizona as part of NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies in August or September.