BIG Idea Challenge Finalists Devise Crafty Concepts For In-Space Spacecraft Assembly

NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, managed by the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, and the National Institute of Aerospace have selected five university teams to develop their concepts for in-space spacecraft assembly. Image Credit: Analytical Mechanics Associates

December 16, 2016 – It’s a complex and daunting thing, dreaming up ways to assemble spacecraft in space. But don’t tell that to a team of students from the University of Colorado Boulder — they’re up for the challenge.

In fact, they are one of five university teams that will soon get the chance to make the case for their in-space spacecraft assembly concepts as part of the 2017 Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

This year’s challenge asked teams to propose innovative concepts for in-space assembly of spacecraft – particularly tugs – propelled by solar electric propulsion that transfer payloads from low-Earth orbit, to an orbit around the moon, or to a lunar distant retrograde orbit.

After a competitive proposal review and selection process, a panel of judges selected five teams to continue with their designs. Finalists include, Tulane University, the University of Colorado Boulder, a multi-university team consisting of students from Georgia Tech, the University of Texas at Austin and New York University, as well as two teams from the University of Maryland.

“These teams brought forth innovative approaches and impressive technical analysis for the design of modular solar electric propulsion orbit-transfer vehicles,” added Keith Belvin, principal technologist for structures, materials and nanotechnology in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and a judge for the challenge. “NASA plans to work with the students and their faculty advisors in development of their concepts to support space exploration beyond low Earth orbit.”

Teams will present their final concepts to a panel of NASA experts during the 2017 BIG Idea Forum, scheduled for February 15-16 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The BIG Idea Challenge is sponsored by NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development Program.

“The BIG Idea Challenge provides a great opportunity to engage undergraduates and get them involved in solving real problems that NASA scientists and engineers encounter when developing technology for NASA needs,” said Game Changing Development Program Executive and BIG Idea judge LaNetra Tate. “The response to this year’s challenge was awesome, and the submissions show the technical sophistication of our next generation’s scientists and engineers.”

NASA’s goal for in-space assembly of modular spacecraft is to reduce launch mass and to enable the construction of larger structures in space in a way that reduces costs associated with deep space exploration. Use of solar electric propulsion spacecraft could provide an efficient and cost-effective solution for delivering essential payloads needed for expansion beyond Earth’s boundaries.

Each of the final five teams proposed unique system designs that provide the potential ability to construct large solar propulsion tugs in space. Some of their concepts employed new approaches for packaging modules that minimized launch loads, while others focused on modular solar arrays and ion engines, or robust robotic assembly of the modules that form the actual solar propulsion tug.

During their design review at the BIG Idea Forum, the five finalists will compete to persuade the NASA judging panel that their concepts are not only revolutionary, but feasible as well. The team with the most promising concept will be offered an internship opportunity to continue working on its concept side-by-side with engineers and members of the Game Changing Development Program at NASA Langley during the summer of 2017.

For more information about the 2017 Big Idea Challenge, please visit: