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NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge asks for Moon-based AM solutions

The availability of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) derived metals on the Moon would allow infrastructure needed for a lunar base to be made locally using AM

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NASA’s 2023 annual Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge is asking university students to design a metal production pipeline on the Moon – from extracting metal from lunar minerals to creating structures and tools. The ability to extract metal and build needed infrastructure on the Moon advances the Artemis Program goal of a sustained human presence on the lunar surface.

Its strength and resistance to corrosion make metal key to building structures, pipes, cables, and more, but the metal materials for infrastructure are heavy, making them very expensive to transport. Student teams participating in the BIG Idea Challenge, a university-level competition sponsored by NASA and managed by the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), will develop innovative ways to extract and convert metals from minerals found on the Moon, such as ilmenite and anorthite, to enable metal manufacturing on the Moon.

NASA's BIG Idea Challenge asks for Moon-based AM solutions that would allow infrastructure needed for a lunar base to be made locally.
The surface of the moon. Source: NASA

The BIG Idea Challenge, now in its eighth year, invites university students to tackle some of the most critical needs facing space exploration and help create the mission capabilities that could make new discoveries possible. The challenge provides undergraduate and graduate students working with faculty advisors the opportunity to design, develop, and demonstrate their technology in a project-based program over the course of a year and a half. This NASA-funded challenge provides development awards of up to $180,000 to up to eight selected teams to build and demonstrate their concept designs and share the results of their research and testing at the culminating forum in November 2023.

The availability of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) derived metals on the Moon would allow infrastructure needed for a lunar base – including pipes, power cables, landing pads, transport rails, and pressure vessels to contain volatiles like fuel – to be made locally using additive manufacturing.

“Here at home, forging metal has long been a key part of building our homes and infrastructure, and the same holds true as we work towards a sustained presence on the Moon,” said Niki Werkheiser, director of technology maturation within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). “This challenge gives students the opportunity to help develop the future technology that will help us find, process, and manufacture with metal on the lunar surface.”

NASA's BIG Idea Challenge asks for Moon-based AM solutions that would allow infrastructure needed for a lunar base to be made locally.
Illustration of NASA astronauts on the lunar South Pole. Source: NASA

Teams are invited to submit proposals for technologies needed along any point in the lunar metal product pipeline, including, but not limited to: metal detecting, metal refining, forming materials for additive manufacturing, and testing and qualifying 3D printed infrastructure for use on the Moon

Drilling, excavation, and transportation of mined materials are excluded from this challenge.

A non-binding notice of intent is due on 30 September 2022. Written proposal and video submissions are due on 24 January 2023, in which teams must include a specific, compelling use case that describes how their portion of the metal product production pipeline fits into infrastructure development on the Moon. Teams should also identify what systems they assume will be in place to support their proposed concept, as well as consider incorporating mechanisms to enable efficient operation on the Moon, including lunar dust mitigation, thermal management, and realistic power considerations.

Teams of at least five and no more than 25 must be composed of students and faculty at US-based colleges and universities affiliated with their state’s Space Grant Consortium. Non-Space Grant-affiliated colleges and universities may partner with a Space Grant-affiliated institution. Minority Serving Institutions are encouraged to apply. Multi-university and multi-disciplinary teams are encouraged.

“NASA is already thinking about supporting longer-term missions to the Moon. This BIG Idea Challenge theme links university teams to the push toward sustained human presence on the Moon and on other planets,” said Tomas Gonzalez-Torres, Space Grant project manager in NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement. “This theme goes beyond initial Artemis missions and starts tackling the mission planning needs once we’ve returned humans to the Moon. We are excited to see what these teams develop.”

The 2022 BIG Idea Challenge is sponsored by NASA through a collaboration between STMD’s Game Changing Development program and the Office of STEM Engagement’s Space Grant project.

NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge is one of several Artemis student challenges. The BIG Idea Challenge is managed by the National Institute of Aerospace. For more information and to participate in the challenge, visit NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge website.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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