Six students from Tulane University took first place in NASA’s second annual Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge for in-space assembly of spacecraft at the BIG Idea Forum hosted by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
The engineering design competition engages the university community in driving innovation and developing unique solutions to NASA technology focus areas. This year, university teams were asked to come up with concepts for constructing a solar electric propulsion (SEP)-powered space tug using autonomous robotic assembly. The tug would need to transfer payloads from low-Earth orbit to a lunar orbit.
“The Tulane University team provided an unanticipated design solution for large SEP orbit transfer vehicles,” said Keith Belvin, BIG Idea judge and principal technologist for structures, materials and nanotechnology for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “They exceeded our goals for novel SEP vehicles constructed using autonomous robotic assembly.”
Tulane emerged as the winner after NASA judges selected five teams to compete, where they presented more fully developed concepts in an intense design review. The Tulane team, led by Professor Timothy Schuler, was awarded first place for their design concept, “The Sunflower – A Modular and Hexagonally Symmetric SEP Cargo Transport Spacecraft.” Tulane’s concept utilizes hexagonal modules with distributed power and propulsion and a hybrid deployment/assembly approach to create SEP vehicles scalable from 200kW to 500kW.
Just like tug boats are tasked with moving boats from one point to another in the water, these vehicles will serve as “space tugs,” moving modules from one location to another in the vacuum of space. The plan is for the tugs to use robots for self-assembly and then transfer cargo to staging points in support of deep space exploration.
A team from the University of Maryland was named first runner-up. Under the guidance of advisor professor Dave Akin, the team developed a concept called the “200kW/500kW Solar-electric Modular Flexible Kinetic Escort” or SMo-FLaKE.
The winning team and first runner-up will be offered coveted NASA internships with the Game Changing Development Program team at NASA for the summer of 2017. During the internship, they will work closely with NASA engineers to advance portions of their solar electric propulsion concepts that have the potential to provide high-impact capabilities in crewed space missions.
The BIG Idea Challenge is sponsored by the Game Changing Development Program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and managed by the National Institute of Aerospace.
For a complete list of teams and more information about the BIG Idea competition, visit:
For more information about the Game Changing Development program, please visit: