Almost a quarter of a million miles away from home, the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions are the closest extraterrestrial water source. These craters have remained dark for billions of years, but student-developed technologies can help shine light on all they have to offer.
Through the competitive Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge and the Space Grant project, NASA has awarded nearly $1 million to eight university teams to build sample lunar payloads and demonstrate innovative ways to study the Moon’s darkest areas.
“It’s an exciting time for NASA and students across the country,” said Drew Hope, Game Changing Development program manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “Thanks to our partnership with the Office of STEM Engagement, this is the most money NASA has awarded in a student challenge directly connected to Artemis. I look forward to seeing the inventive designs come to life as well as how they can advance our exploration capabilities in permanently shadowed craters on the Moon.”
The selected teams will develop ways to collect data in and around permanently shadowed regions, generate wireless power for future infrastructure, enable autonomous mobility even in the most extreme environments, and more. Such systems could benefit NASA’s Artemis program and be used to study the Moon ahead of a human landing in 2024 or help establish a sustained presence by 2028.
The award values vary and are based on each team’s proposed concept and budget. The 2020 BIG Idea Challenge awardees are:
Arizona State University in Tempe – $84,333
Ball-shaped probes and a spring catapult capable of launching them from a lunar lander to different locations in and around a crater. The probes can collect and send data directly to the lander for several hours. Being able to quickly learn about a region on the Moon can help inform the potential for future human exploration as well as small rover deployments.
Colorado School of Mines in Golden with the University of Arizona in Tucson – $114,000
Working in permanently shadowed regions on the Moon and extracting water believed to be there will require a power source for lights and machinery. This wireless energy demonstration uses lasers to power small stationary receivers. To prove the concept of laser power beaming, several two-inch cubes covered in solar panels deploy from a lander to the surface and measure the amount of light received from a lander-mounted laser.
Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire – $83,000
Small and lightweight robot explorers that travel and work independently or as a group. Multiple rovers can connect to distribute power and form a tram-like system to navigate soft lunar terrain. The four-wheeled rover scouts can transport instruments to different locations near the Moon’s poles.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge – $163,900
A lightweight tower that extends approximately 100 feet from a lunar lander. The top of the tower serves as a payload platform for a variety of instruments. The tower could enhance lunar activities, serving as a communications relay between payloads inside a deep crater and a lander as well as imaging the lunar surface at a higher resolution than spacecraft in orbit around the Moon.
Michigan Technological University in Houghton – $161,074
A small rover to lay lightweight, superconducting cable that tethers to a lander as it traverses craters in permanently shadowed regions. Once in its final destination, the rover acts as a recharging hub and communication relay for other robots working in the area, providing continuous power without requiring direct sunlight.
Northeastern University in Boston – $90,889
This two-part system makes use of a small, legged rover (SCOUT) and support module (DOGHOUSE). At the crater’s rim, SCOUT will drop off DOGHOUSE and then autonomously navigate inside the permanently shadowed region to explore the terrain. DOGHOUSE acts as a charging station and a communication relay hub. This technology could be used to survey a site ahead of other robotic, or even human, operations.
Pennsylvania State University in State College – $145,933
An instrument to measure the composition of lunar soil in permanently shadowed regions. The technology uses a laser to determine the location and concentration of resources, such as water ice. This in-situ resource utilization prospecting work is needed to establish a sustained human presence on the Moon under Artemis.
University of Virginia in Charlottesville – $123,596
A high-power laser attached to a lander that is located on the rim of a crater. The laser beams energy to a rover inside the crater, remotely delivering power. This technology could energize systems operating in the dark for extended periods of time, without requiring rovers to leave the region to recharge.
The grants will be used to develop and test the technologies in simulated environments over the next 10 months, demonstrating their readiness for a potential lunar mission as early as 2023. The teams will present the results of their research and development to a panel of NASA and industry experts at a face-to-face design review in November 2020.
“One of the most exciting things about this challenge is that several of the concepts, if proven to be viable as a result of these awards, could eventually be integrated and operated together on the surface of the Moon,” said Chad Rowe, acting Space Grant project manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “These students are part of the Artemis generation and they are helping fulfill NASA’s mission needs today, while developing relevant hands-on experience that will prepare them for aerospace careers after graduation.”
The Game Changing Development program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate partnered with the Office of STEM Engagement’s Space Grant project to fund unique concepts that address near-term capability requirements to support exploration of permanently shadowed regions in-and-near the Moon’s polar regions. The additional funds contributed for the first time by the Office of STEM Engagement allow for larger awards, more opportunities for high-fidelity concept development, and enriched student participation in NASA’s missions by leveraging the vast network of institutions comprising the Space Grant consortia spanning every state, Puerto Rico and D.C.
For short synopses of the projects and team videos, visit:
For more information about the BIG Idea Challenge, visit:
NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge is one of several Artemis student challenges. To learn more about the others, visit: