NASA is once again calling upon college students to help the space agency design solutions for future space habitats and exploration systems through its Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge.
NASA is accepting applications for the 2015 challenge through April 30. The project calls upon students to design and deploy new prototype systems that can advance the agency's capabilities to explore space, particularly with its next-generation spacecraft, Orion.
"NASA will directly benefit from the competition by sponsoring the development of innovative concepts from universities which may result in innovative ideas and solutions that could be applied to exploration habitats," Tracy Gill, NASA's program manager for the X-Hab Challenge, told Design News.
At the same time, the challenge engages students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and provides them with the opportunity to work with NASA on the research and development of prototype designs for new space habitats and technology for deep space exploration missions.
"The students get experience following a systems engineering process for a real-world project and get the benefit of working with and tapping into the insight of a team of NASA civil servants and contractors," Gill said.
To take part in the X-Hab Challenge, student teams must submit a plan for the design, manufacture, assembly, and testing of innovations to develop prototype systems that fortify habitation and spacewalking capabilities for extended deep space missions on the Orion spacecraft, according to NASA. Orion is designed to carry astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, including to an asteroid and Mars. Orion's first uncrewed test flight, Exploration Flight Test-1, is scheduled for later this year.
Specific topics of interest in the 2015 challenge are power distribution systems, advanced avionics, inflatable structures, additive manufacturing, and food production systems.
NASA's Exploration Augmentation Module (EAM) team then evaluates team submissions and chooses which ones will be funded. The agency offers multiple X-Hab awards of $10,000 to $20,000 each to design and produce functional products of interest. The prototypes that result from the challenge may be integrated onto existing NASA-built operational prototypes and used operationally.
NASA is serious about its efforts to engage students in STEM fields as well as to apply real-world application of this learning, and sponsors a number of challenges to bolster these activities.
The agency recently unveiled five teams of finalists for another STEM-related student challenge, the Exploration Design Challenge, which asks high-school students around the world to devise ways to protect people and objects on board Orion from radiation. Lockheed Martin and the National Institute of Aerospace co-sponsored the challenge, which also is aimed at Orion's first test flight.
NASA has benefitted from the challenges with the development of new technology. Previous X-Hab Challenge projects developed innovations such as an inflatable loft for crew sleeping quarters, plant-growth systems, stowage systems, and habitat layout designs for future space exploration.