BUFFALO, NY - Inherently, mankind was destined to explore. Whether it be from the darkness of our cave dwelling, across a vast sea of water to an unknown land or to the heavens and stars above. As we reach for these new horizons new vehicles and mechanisms are being developed to get us there.

But NASA can’t do it alone. There’s been a significant increase in the commercial space industry in the last decade, in fact the Commercial Spaceflight Federation has over 70 members. These partnerships are vital for NASA to meet its goal of humans reaching Mars by 2030. But another component that’s just as important is tapping into students, and their young minds, to help develop concepts that will get us to the red planet on schedule.

“Can you as students with your bright minds, can you develop a new way for us to leverage this technology in addition to the benefits we have," said Henry Kwan, a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering senior at UB. "So that’s what we have done.”

Five UB students are finalists in a joint NASA and National Institute of Aerospace contest called the BIG Idea Challenge. The contest is aimed at developing a system for re-entry into Mars atmosphere. The challenge centers on the "hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator" (HIAD) or in other words, an inflatable heat shield.

UB, along with students from Georgia Tech, Purdue and the University of Illinois, were challenged to devise a concept for reducing speed of a 15 to 30 metric ton vehicle.

“The Mars Curiosity rover was about 1 metric ton. So these payloads are going to be about 15-30x’s bigger." said Kwan.

A Mars bound spacecraft will enter the mars atmosphere at 6.5km/s, or Mach 19. Slowing an object that large to a safe speed to land is not as easy as hitting the air brakes. One of the challenges the team had to tackle was slowing the craft down.

“Picture yourself skiing down a slope and making S’s," said teammate Levi Li. "This is how you would, in theory, slow down while skiing. This is what we’re trying to do with our design."

The team developed an unnamed payload shifting mechanism that will adjust the center of gravity of the spacecraft, allowing it to make s-curves as it enters mars. The trick of course is using as little fuel as possible since there’s not a NOCO up there to fill it up. The main criteria for the contest was that any device had to work with an inflatable heat shield that NASA is developing for the mission.

“What NASA wanted really was how can we leverage this inflatable structure," said Kwan. "So what we created on top of this inflatable was a payload shifting mechanism, which is what we really focused on for our proposed concept.”

If the UB team wins BIG Idea Challenge they’ll be offered a paid internship at NASA's Langley facility and possibly have the chance to have their concept flight tested.

"We feel we have a really good chance at winning this competition,” said Kwan.