NASA Launches 2017 BIG Idea Challenge

Big_Idea_ChallengeWASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea challenge is an initiative supporting NASA’s Game Changing Development Program (GCD) efforts to rapidly mature innovative/high impact capabilities and technologies for infusion in a broad array of future NASA missions. This year’s GCD-sponsored engineering design competition seeks innovative ideas from the academic community for in-space assembly of spacecraft – particularly tugs, propelled by solar electric propulsion (SEP), that transfer payloads for low earth orbit (LEO) to a lunar distant retrograde orbit (LDRO). Reuse of the SEP tug provides a cost-efficient method of transferring payloads between LEO-to-LDRO, LDRO-to-LEO, and for transit to deep-space locations such as Mars.

Participation in the BIG Idea is open to teams of undergraduate and graduate students studying in fields applicable to human space exploration (i.e., aerospace, electrical, and mechanical engineering; and life, physical, and computer sciences). The BIG Idea challenge allows students to incorporate their coursework into real aerospace design concepts and work together in a team environment. Interdisciplinary teams are encouraged.

NASA is actively developing technologies to reduce the cost of deep space exploration by developing space systems that can be assembled in-space and re-used or upgraded for additional missions. Advances in autonomous robotics has been a key technology that makes possible the concept of operations (CONOPS) whereby space system components can be aggregated in one location (possibly from multiple launches) and then assembled in space. In-space assembly of modular space systems enables vehicles to be efficiently stowed in launch vehicles, transported to desired orbits, and assembled into functional spacecraft. The modular design also allows future upgrade, replacement of spent components, and reconfiguration for new mission application.

NASA is developing the evolvable mars campaign (EMC) and plans to use a LDRO to stage space systems for various missions ranging from lunar excursions, asteroid rendezvous, and Mars exploration by humans. Recent advances in electric ion propulsion and large arrays for solar power generation allow space systems to be transferred from one location to another at lower cost than chemical or nuclear propulsion. The development of 200kW tugs using SEP between LEO and LDRO and larger SEP systems with 500kW for Mars exploration are needed.

The current approach to building spacecraft is to pre-integrate all the subsystems / components on a backbone structure that attaches to the launch vehicle. After launch, the spacecraft is separated from the launch vehicle and various deployments (solar arrays, antennas, instruments) occur to achieve the desired functional configuration. This approach allows for system check-out (verification) prior to launch, however, the integrated spacecraft is subject to significant mechanical and acoustic loads during launch. In addition, the spacecraft capability is usually volume limited by the launch vehicle fairing size (instead of mass limited). Building 200kw or larger SEP tugs with the current approach would lead to very complex packaging and deployment of the large solar arrays and require a single large launch vehicle.

The BIG Idea Challenge seeks new concepts for constructing 200kW class SEP tugs in space using robotic assembly of modules that make up the SEP tug. The BIG Idea invites teams and their faculty advisors to work together to design and analyze potential modular concepts and systems that provide the ability to construct large SEP tugs in space. The BIG concepts can employ new approaches for packaging modules in one or more launch vehicles that minimize launch loads, modular (distributed) solar arrays and ion engines, and robust robotic assembly (joining) of the modules that form the SEP tug.


  • ⇒ Design simplicity
  • ⇒ Low system mass
  • ⇒ Ground testability of the assembly process
  • ⇒ System level modularity
  • ⇒ Packaging for launch for the least number of launches
  • ⇒ Concept of operations for robotic assembly and module deployment
  • ⇒ Ability to remove and replace modules

For more information on design guidelines and constraints, please thoroughly review the Competition Basics Webpage