ORONO, Maine — If humans set foot on Mars one day, a group of University of Maine researchers could play a part in getting them there safely.

Engineers at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center are working closely with the NASA on the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD.

The HIAD is made up of a series of large, inner tube-like inflatable rings called tori, arranged in decreasing diameter and connected by fabric to form a cone shape. The larger the diameter of the HIAD, the more effective it is at slowing down a large payload.

When a spacecraft approaches a planet, it needs to slow down to avoid smashing into the surface. As a spaceship passes through the planet’s atmosphere, it would deploy the HIAD, increasing atmospheric resistance to slow down the craft and shielding it from the heat of reentry. Another series of systems, such as a parachute or boosters, would set the craft down safely.

NASA has said the technology could one day be used to help land a manned mission on Mars, putting humans on the ground more than 34 million miles from Earth.

While the HIAD technology and concept is largely NASA’s brainchild, it needed help when it came to testing and evaluating materials that could be used to make the actual system.

Enter researchers at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

NASA learned of past work that engineers and scientists at UMaine had done related to inflatable fabric structures — such as the development of Bridge-in-a-Backpack — and turned to the university.

“It seems like a bit of a leap for a bunch of civil engineers to start working on something that slows down a spacecraft,” Bill Davids, the John C. Bridge Professor and chairman of the civil engineering department at UMaine, said recently. “But at the end of the day, it’s an inflatable fabric structure, and we’ve built a lot of expertise and infrastructure here at this lab around that.”

The university is in the third year of a four-year grant to study various inflatable braided fabrics, using a machine provided by NASA to push, pull and deform the tori in an effort to determine how much stress the structures can handle. The four-year grant is valued around $750,000, with the university pitching in a $250,000 match.

“[NASA is] really pushing the envelope all the time; they’re looking for the best materials,” Davids said.

The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant was issued from NASA to UMaine through the Maine Space Grant Consortium.

In another part of the partnership, NASA awarded UMaine civil engineering doctoral student Andrew Young a 2015 NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship. Young is one of about 50 students across the nation to receive that honor, allowing them to study technologies related to space travel — ranging from navigation systems to robotics.

With this fellowship, NASA has tasked Young with identifying methods to predict how HIAD of various sizes, orientations and materials will perform and react to stress factors.

Testing large HIAD on a full-scale basis would be cost prohibitive, so NASA needs reliable models to predict how they’ll perform without actually dropping them from the atmosphere or putting them into wind tunnels, most of which can’t reach the limits NASA needs to test.

Young’s fellowship will provide up to $148,000 over two years to cover his stipend, travel expenses, a 10-week “visiting technologist experience” at a NASA facility, and more.

Young and Davids said they hope success on this project will lead to more partnerships with NASA in the future, and increase NASA’s interest in Maine institutions and companies.

“From the student perspective, this is an amazing collaboration,” Young said. “[NASA] really cares about developing the next generation of scientists and engineers, so they put a lot of resources toward that goal.”

NASA created an online game to simulate how the HIAD could be used, and has much more information at www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/game_changing_development/HIAD.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.