If we want to establish a sustained presence on the Moon and on Mars, we'll need water.

Water will help to enable agricultural efforts on the planet, produce propellant, reduce the need for oxygen, and provide abundant hydrogen for the development of plastics and other manufactured materials.

Before the water can be used to support sustained human presence on the Moon or Mars, however, it must be extracted from the ice deposits deep below the surface a formidable task, given the heavy and dense layers that must be reached and broken through.

Getting to the ice will require a new kind of drill, or a system that can identify different layers and understand the necessary modifications required to mine through them.

A new NASA challenge called the Moon to Mars Ice and Prospecting Challenge  asks university teams to explore and demonstrate new ways to identify different layers using system telemetry, and ultimately extract water from simulated lunar or Martian ice deposits.

"The best way to learn is to put learning into practice. For engineers, to design a solution to a problem. For scientists, to develop ways of extracting water from relatively hostile environments," Melvin Ferebee, director of the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate at NASA’s Langley Research Center, told Tech Briefs.

Over the course of six months, teams will build and test their systems at Langley, in preparation for a head-to-head competition  in June of 2020.

In the Q&A below, Ferebee explains why these kinds of challenges are so important.

Tech Briefs: Why is this task particularly challenging? What do you imagine teams having the most difficult time with?

Melvin Ferebee: I believe it’s providing a unique, innovative solution that accomplishes the task of drilling, extracting water from ice, and cleaning the water to a point that it qualifies to be saved and then doing it in the available time, with pretty difficult mass, volume, and power constraints on a sample soil of unknown composition.

Teams have the most difficult time dealing with layers of varying densities. It is extremely tough to design a system that can handle hard material like limestone and ice, but can still maneuver through clay, mud, and even fine sand without contaminating the water they are harvesting. Yet we need systems that can handle all of these types of soil composition, and this is the reason we are looking for unique solutions through this challenge.

Tech Briefs: Is this the kind of challenge that requires a brainstorm/out-of-the-box/wild idea approach that student teams may be able to provide?

Melvin Ferebee: The challenge is meant to elicit exactly that kind of thinking; however, the actual implementation of such thinking can’t violate the laws of Physics. There is definitely a balance between feasibility and innovation that teams have to address.

Tech Briefs: How will you work with the different teams? What happens after the teams are selected?

Melvin Ferebee: After teams are selected, we check in with them at regular intervals to answer questions, provide best practices, and to ensure they are making steady progress in their development. Immediately after teams submit Notices of Intent (NOIs) to compete in the challenge, we ask them to submit questions in writing and attend a Q&A webinar with the judges in mid-October. The questions are answered live on the Q&A webinar, where the judges also provide some additional context and lessons learned from previous challenges.

A major objective for this challenge is to learn from each other and continue to build on successful approaches that will help us move this technology forward. To help facilitate that, the judges host annual "lessons-learned" webinars and archive them on the challenge website for future viewing. We also host a knowledge-capture session with the competing teams at the end of each year’s challenge, to hear directly from the teams about what worked, what didn’t work, what could be improved on, and what different approaches they may use in the future. All of that information is compiled and placed into a lessons learned document on the challenge Resources webpage  so that new teams can benefit from previous experience and don’t spend time re-inventing the wheel.

After teams are selected, they receive the first half of their development award to start building their systems. They can submit questions in writing to the judges at any point in time, and the answers are posted on the challenge FAQs page for all competing teams to see. In March, teams submit a mid-project report and a video documenting their progress and system capabilities. Teams must successfully pass their mid-project status review gate to receive the 2nd half of their stipend award.

Tech Briefs: Why are these kind of challenges, generally, so important? What can a student challenge produce that NASA might not be able to accomplish otherwise?

Melvin Ferebee: We do not have a monopoly of good ideas within the Agency. It is a good business decision to invest in the future generation of scientists and engineers to solve a problem we’ll face on other planetary bodies. These activities prompt collegiate students to investigate, plan, and analyze space exploration design at differing states of development, fuel innovation and out-of-the box thinking. The students benefit from hands-on experience working on a real NASA problem, and NASA benefits from diverse teams who bring fresh perspectives to the problem. It’s an inexpensive way for NASA see multiple potential solutions – learning from what works and what doesn’t work during the student’s technology demonstrations. This helps us narrow down our focus on which solutions we want to invest more time and resources exploring.

What do you think? Share your comments and questions below.