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NASA Turns to Students for ‘Big Ideas’ on Mars Exploration

A human expedition to Mars will require a significant amount of power upon arrival. Running habitats and life-support systems on the surface of the planet, in fact, calls for up to 40 kilowatts, according to NASA’s Bob Hodson.

To kick off NASA’s third annual BIG Idea Challenge, Glenn Research Center proposed an idea: What about an autonomously deployed solar array on the Martian surface?

Students from 16 universities answered the call. After reviewing a variety of unique design submissions, NASA selected five finalists from Norwich University, Princeton University, Texas A&M, The University of Colorado, Boulder, and The University of Virginia. (See their design concepts below.)

We spoke with Bob Hodson, Deputy Program Manager of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, who explains how agency-led challenges are bringing big ideas to life.

Tech Briefs: How did the BIG Idea Challenge come about?

Bob Hodson: NASA has been very good at bringing in students and mentoring them in the summers. We wanted to focus their work by throwing out a challenge problem. The first year’s challenge was related to Mars entry vehicles, using steerable inflatable entry vehicles that land on the surface of Mars. Last year, we did a challenge related to in-space assembly, specifically having the student teams assemble spacecraft in lower-earth orbit autonomously.

Tech Briefs: Why were power sources considered the “Big Idea” this year?

Hodson: For human-to-Mars exploration, you’re going to need a significant amount of power — for the habitat and the various life-support systems on the surface of the planet: on the order of 40 kilowatts of power. We have a technology development program for nuclear fission reactors, but bringing nuclear power to the surface of Mars is a challenge in itself.

NASA's InSight lander, scheduled to travel to Mars in 2018, with solar arrays deployed. (Image Credit: NASA)

A solar-based approach seems like the next best candidate. We’d like to develop both technologies, look at them from a power production perspective, and really understand how much power you can get to the surface per kilogram of mass. The more mass you have to put on the surface, the more expensive the mission is going to be.

Tech Briefs: How does this objective compare to the use of solar arrays in previous missions?

Hodson: We’ve used solar arrays on many missions, but never of this class. Generating 40 kilowatts of power is orders of magnitude more than we use in most of our missions. You have to have a tight packing density, too, or else you have to send multiple missions to deploy the arrays. Once it’s on the surface, you also have to autonomously deploy it. It has to be waiting for the crew, up and operational, when they arrive. The BIG Idea Challenge is a great way to get unique ideas into the pipeline.

Tech Briefs: Do you find that this contest presents you with unique, “out-of-the-box” ideas?

Yes, definitely. This particular batch had some really interesting ideas: inflatable balloons, filled with the atmosphere on Mars, to float the arrays above the surface. Or new types of composites. One idea is an origami-based approach, where the array is folded into a tight cylinder shape, and unfolds like a flower. You get some really clever ideas coming out these competitions.

Tech Briefs: What happens with the winning idea?

Hodson: Our mission in the agency is to do next-generation technology development. We do what we call “crossing the Valley of Death.” The “Valley of Death” starts at proof of concept (when someone comes up with a great idea) and ends when it’s ready for infusion in a mission, climbing our Technology Readiness Level scales. Depending on the maturity of the particular technology idea, it could come into our Game-Changing Development program; it could be adopted by a mission; or it could lead to other ways of development through our Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) programs or collaborative opportunities with industries.

Tech Briefs: What role do you see the Challenge playing in the development of technology?

Hodson: It’s an incubator for new ideas to solve a particular challenge problem. That’s important for the technology development aspect, to make sure in the early stages that we explore all the potential ideas that can be found. As you develop technology and move across this “Valley of Death,” the process gets more and more expensive. The “Challenge” is a great way to get some out-of-the-box thinking and get a breadth of ideas coming in at the beginning.

Tech Briefs: What’s your favorite part about working with the BIG Idea Challenge?

Hodson: Personally, the best thing about it is being involved with the students. They’re excited when they come in here. The level of engineering and technical excellence that I see on these teams is extremely impressive. The students get to prototype their designs, they get a solid, system-based engineering experience, and they get to work with some of the top-notch experts in the area. I think it’s great and benefits all — to give university students a really terrific educational opportunity.

What “BIG Idea” stands out to you? Share your comments below.

Over the next months, the finalists will write a 15-page technical paper for review. In March of 2018, each team will present their design concepts to a panel of six judges from NASA and industry, including Hodson. See a summary of the BIG Idea finalists below, as presented on NASA.gov:

  • Norwich University offers the Norwich Inflatable Mars Solar Array (NIMSA). The array uses Mars’ CO2 to fill inflatable channels that extend from a central boom to deploy eight, large rectangular solar panels.
  • Princeton University’s origami-inspired solar array design. called Horus, merges innovative design and sound engineering to deploy a large monolithic array from a tiny stowed volume.
  • Texas A&M’s Applied Photovoltaic Power Array (APPA) system concept includes four 18-meter diameter solar array “umbrellas” using tethered telescoping booms.
  • The University of Colorado, Boulder proposes the Mars Autonomous and Foldable Solar Array (MAFSA). The array features flexible booms, wrapped around a central hub, to support four circular photovoltaic array segments.
  • The University of Virginia's concept includes two large, carbon-dioxide filled balloons. Utilizing the top-surface, flexible solar array blankets maximize solar input and minimize dust accumulation.