NASA Student Challenge Aims at Extracting Metal, 3D Printing Infrastructure on the Moon


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With NASA’s first Artemis Moon mission set to launch in just a few days, the space agency is gearing to send teams of people to the lunar south pole by December 2024. But pulling off this moonshot will demand new technologies to help crews survive the harsh lunar environment, which has a scant atmosphere, no protection from radiation, abrasive dust, and extreme temperatures ranging between 260 F (127 C) and -397 F (-238 C). As a result, one of the most crucial aspects to consider when designing these upcoming missions is the availability of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) so humans can survive using local resources.

NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge

Seeking to advance extraction processes suitable for the microgravity conditions of the Moon, NASA is engaging universities through its annual Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. The goal of the student-led teams is to design a metal production pipeline on the Moon, including metal extraction from lunar minerals and the creation of structures and tools on site. Through this recently announced initiative, NASA hopes to advance the Artemis Program’s goal of a sustained human presence on the lunar surface.

NASA's Space Launch System rocket and integrated Orion spacecraft in Florida.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and integrated Orion spacecraft is ready for launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Image courtesy of NASA/Ben Smegelsky.

It’s been half a century since Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan set foot on the Moon for the last time. However, all that is about to change during this decade, and the stakes are high. NASA has several missions planned, including two uncrewed stages of the Artemis mission – Artemis I and Artemis II – before safely launching humans to lunar orbit on Artemis III.

Through the 2023 BIG Idea Challenge, dubbed Lunar Forge Challenge, NASA invites university students to tackle some of the most critical needs facing space exploration and help create the mission capabilities that could make 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 for over a year and a half.

Furthermore, this NASA-funded challenge provides development awards of up to $180,000 to up to eight selected teams that will have the chance to build and demonstrate their concept designs and share the results of their research and testing at a culminating forum in November 2023.

Student teams participating in the BIG Idea Challenge will get to develop innovative ways to extract and convert metals from minerals found on the Moon, such as ilmenite and anorthite, to enable metal manufacturing.

3D Printing Metal on the Moon

Metal is a critical resource for building structures, pipes, cables, and more, mainly due to its strength and resistance to corrosion. However, the metal materials for infrastructure are heavy, making them very expensive to transport to orbit. It may be that in recent years it has become more affordable to send objects into orbits due to the emergence of commercial launch providers like SpaceX and Blue Origin. Launching a spacecraft today is at least ten times cheaper than it was years ago. For example, based on data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a piggybacking payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch (instead of booking an entire mission) will cost $2,500 per pound to low Earth orbit (LEO). Previously, rideshare prices would be much higher. For example, during the 1960s, NASA spent $28 billion to land astronauts on the Moon, a cost today equating to about $288 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Regardless, the costs to send the metal to space remain high. In contrast, the availability of ISRU-derived metals on the Moon would allow the infrastructure for a lunar base to be made locally using additive manufacturing (AM). A few essential infrastructure products desired are storage vessels for liquids and gases, extrusions, pipes, power cables, and supporting structures (such as roads and landing pads).

Commenting on the new challenge, Niki Werkheiser, director of technology maturation within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), explains: “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. 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.”

According to the NASA BIG Idea Challenge site, 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 AM, and testing and qualifying 3D printed infrastructure for use on the Moon.

The teams are expected to present a non-binding notice of intent by September 30, 2022, and four months later, a written proposal and video submissions describing 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 must have at least five and no more than 25 students and faculty from U.S.-based colleges and universities affiliated with their state’s Space Grant Consortium, a national network of colleges and universities. However, non-Space Grant-affiliated colleges and universities may partner with a Space Grant-affiliated institution as 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.”

NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge is one of several Artemis student challenges designed to mature innovative and high-impact capabilities and technologies for a broad array of future space missions.

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