NASA Seeks BIG Ideas from Universities for Tech to Study Moon’s Dark Regions

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA plans to land humans on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program. Before astronauts step on the lunar surface again, new technology instruments will study the surface.

NASA is engaging the university community for ideas to help achieve some of these activities through its annual Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, which is asking university teams to submit robust proposals for sample lunar payloads that can demonstrate technology systems needed to explore areas of the Moon that never see the light of day. The 2020 BIG Idea Challenge is scaling up this year, with larger team sizes and more funding that will allow for high fidelity concept development.

Although it is Earth’s closest neighbor, there is still much to learn about the Moon, particularly in the permanently shadowed regions in and near the polar regions. To aid exploration and science in those areas that have remained dark for billions of years, the BIG Idea Challenge is tasking universities with developing new approaches and technologies in order to study these regions.

To participate, students will propose innovative ideas for a wide variety of concepts, systems and technology demonstrations that will address near-term technology capability requirements to support NASA’s exploration objectives for the permanently shadowed regions in and near the Moon’s poles. Specifically, teams of students and their faculty advisors are invited to propose unique solutions in response to one of the following areas:

  • Exploration of permanently shadowed regions in lunar polar regions
  • Technologies to support in-situ resource utilization in these regions
  • Capabilities to explore and operate in permanently shadowed regions

“Through partnerships with industry and academia, we are rapidly developing technologies capable of delivering larger landers, using more resources, and exploring more remote regions of the Moon,” said LaNetra Tate, program executive for NASA’s Game Changing Development program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “We are excited to be able to offer increased funding levels for the 2020 BIG Idea Challenge that will enable university teams to design, build, and test high-fidelity solutions for technology and exploration pursuits in the lunar polar regions.”

To provide realistic design parameters, teams will be asked to design their concepts based on the lunar surface delivery capabilities of the commercial providers selected under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract. Through the CLPS contract, commercial providers have several opportunities to compete for service task orders to deliver science, exploration, and technology payloads to the surface of the Moon, with the first two awarded lunar surface deliveries occurring as soon as July 2021.

BIG Idea Challenge proposals should have a strong concept of operations strategy, include low-cost power options, and have the capability to operate in extreme darkness. Designing an innovative concept that can survive in this environment is no easy task, so multidisciplinary teams of varied skill sets are highly encouraged. 

The 2020 BIG Idea Challenge is open to teams of up to 20 students from universities affiliated with their state’s Space Grant Consortium (or partnered with an affiliated school). Between five and ten teams will be selected to receive funding to bring their designs to life. A range of awards is expected – from $50,000 to $180,000 – depending on the scope of the work proposed.

Selected finalist teams will be required to perform tests and provide results for a robust proof-of-concept. Teams are encouraged to be creative and design their own accurate and realistically simulated testing scenarios that demonstrate readiness to support potential near-term lunar missions. This is key, because if any proposed concepts are deemed viable, NASA just may be interested in including all or part of one of these concepts into a future NASA mission.

“University students have the right frame of mind for the kind of innovation we are after. The world is open to them, and that’s a great situation to be in,” said Erica Alston, deputy director for NASA’s National Space Grant Consortium. “This year’s challenge is a unique opportunity for NASA to strengthen relationships with space grant universities and develop a future workforce with experience developing new and exciting concepts that align directly with current space technology focus areas and capability needs.”

Interested and eligible teams should submit a notice of intent by Sept. 27, 2019. A proposal and video submission are due by Jan. 16, 2020. Students from finalist teams will be invited to the 2020 BIG Idea Forum, which will tentatively be held Oct. 6-8, 2020.

The 2020 BIG Idea Challenge is a sponsored by NASA through a collaboration between the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development program and the Office of STEM Engagement’s Space Grant Consortium. The challenge is managed by the National Institute of Aerospace.

For more information about the challenge, including full design guidelines and constraints, relevant resources, and details on how to apply, visit:

For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit:

For more information on NASA’s National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, visit: