University Students Design Prototypes NASA Could Develop in Missions to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond

The University of Maryland, College Park team used this prototype cabin to investigate the design of minimal cabin volumes for deep space exploration missions. (Credits: University of Maryland, College Park)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — The 2020 Moon to Mars eXploration Systems and Habitation (X-Hab)  Academic Innovation Challenge supports NASA’s efforts to develop technologies and capabilities that will enable future human missions to the Moon, Mars, and other solar system destinations.

In collaboration with the National Space Grant Foundation, NASA awarded nearly $310,000 to 11 university teams for the development of studies, concepts, and technologies that could support the agency’s deep space exploration capabilities. Awards ranged from $15,000 to $50,000, and funded projects that support NASA’s efforts to study sustainable and affordable space exploration and engage the next generation of talented scientific thinkers and engineers.

“The X-Hab challenge gives NASA the chance to understand new potential technologies that can help accomplish the agency’s goals of sustainable space exploration for Artemis and beyond,” said Mark Kirasich, Deputy Associate Administrator for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. “The challenge provides a unique opportunity for the nation’s students to tackle real-world space exploration challenges and gain critical hands-on design, research, and product development experience.”

The 2020 X-Hab projects fall within the following six categories based on sponsoring organizations or projects: 1) Habitation; 2) Life Support; 3) In-Space Manufacturing; 4) NASA Platform for Autonomous Systems (NPAS); 5) Space Life and Physical Science; and 6) Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

The 2020 X-Hab team projects are summarized below:

Habitation

University of Maryland, College Park

Students from the University of Maryland team investigated the design of minimal cabin volumes for imminent exploration missions, such as lunar landers, to determine the effects of cabin sizing and configurations on operability, habitability, and mission performance. The team studied several components including mission planning and analysis, crew systems, load and structures, power and thermal, and systems integration:

  1. Mission planning and analysis: being that science is not critical to crew survival, habitat volume can be safely reduced by removing science equipment.
  2. Crew systems: assuming 30 days/short-term missions, 4 crew, important takeaways include: the volume of a sanitation station is not dependent on the number of crewmembers or habitat volume; and the preferred airlock configuration is mission-dependent. For example, microgravity habitats, which do not require dust mitigation, benefit from venting the cabin airlock to minimize volume.
  3. Loads and structures: airlocks not positioned on the endcap of a cylindrical habitat create wall interference and detract from habitable volume. A wing box style floor structure is an efficient use of mass and volume.
  4. Power and thermal: the majority of equipment related to power and thermal can be located outside of the habitat and has no immediate impact on habitable volume.
  5. Systems integration: the minimum viable habitat volume is around 20m3, varying to more or less depending on mission requirements.

While the University of Maryland team regrets not having the chance to conduct some of their experiments due to facility closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they suggest the next steps be taken to complete the manufacturing of their designs and begin conducting tests.

Life Support

The University of South Alabama team constructed an apparatus that separates aerosolized droplets from the gas stream, minimizing the amount of carbon dioxide in cabin air. (Credits: University of South Alabama)

University of South Alabama, Mobile

Students from the University of South Alabama team studied CO2 capture and removal from cabin air. They found that when a CO2 stream is sent to a Sabatier reactor for conversion into methane, water droplets and amines must be removed—creating a need for a vapor/liquid separation process in a microgravity environment. In response, the team designed a system to separate the aerosolized droplets from the gas stream, using systems engineering to design and construct a hydrophobic screen separation apparatus for a 2-phase, vapor/liquid flow. The apparatus was constructed, but initial testing was not possible due to University lab closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

University of North Texas, Denton

Students from the University of North Texas team recognized the need for proper resupply of oxygen to the crew on NASA missions to the Moon and beyond. With spacecraft cabin environments closed to the space atmosphere, CO2 and water vapor can build up over time, causing the potential for dangerously elevated levels of CO2 in crew members. In response, the student team developed a compact, energy efficient phase separator for air revitalization systems. The separator, designed for microgravity manned exploration, separates CO2 gas and water vapor when cabin air with high levels of CO2 is pulled into the existing air revitalization system. The system recirculates H2O back into the system to continue separation of CO2 from cabin air, while also purging CO2 to space or storing it to be used in another system. Implementing this technology to NASA’s existing air revitalization system could allow for higher efficiency of CO2 removal, energy conservation, and easier maintenance.

Iowa State University, Ames

Students from the Iowa State University team recognized that for long-term missions to deep space, new CO2 management systems need to be designed that mitigate issues current systems have. The team focused on one method of management: using cryogenics to isolate CO2 by taking advantage of different phase change properties of the composition of air. The team conducted extensive research, fabrication, assembly, lab testing, and data collection, resulting in a small-scale prototype two-stage heat exchanger that separates air from CO2 and volatile organics.

In-Space Manufacturing

Rice University

Students from the Rice University team developed a parametric-based repository of 3D shapefiles as a practical tool for just-in-time problem solving. The repository seeks to solve the basic and everyday repair and maintenance needs in space, such as on the space stationthe Gateway, or in deep space. The database includes critical items that may be necessary in medical procedures or extreme outside repair need cases and provides the file, visual information, simple use cases, failure modes, end-of-life information, and restrictions on use. Each part also features novel parametric coding that allows the part geometry to be adjusted based on alternate use cases.

NASA Platform for Autonomous Systems

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Students from the University of Michigan team designed a unique, efficient, and intuitive User Interface/User Experiences (UI/UX)for autonomous operations on the Gateway, the NASA-led lunar-orbit space station that will serve as a multi-functional outpost for missions.The goal of these user interfaces is to understand the information that dictates autonomous spacecraft processes and communicate that information efficiently. In response, the student team built the UI/UX with both a crewed and uncrewed (ground control) mode and includes a number of key functionalities:

  1. Provides accessibility to all system state data points
  2. Provides efficient awareness methods for system state
  3. Implements an intuitive and user-friendly UI/UX
  4. Applies modern UI/UX design principles
  5. Demonstrates functionality of the system in a habitat mockup

The UI/UX design also utilizes an Internet of Things framework, allowing smart watches, tablets, and voice control to work in synergy and increasing accessibility of the experience, as well as a home-desktop that provides a graphical overview of Gateway modules for crew. While extensive design and development has been completed, the current UI/UX prototype has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutting down of university operations.

Oklahoma State University, Stillwater

Students from the Oklahoma State University team designed Augmented Reality (AR) based Cyber-Human interfaces to support autonomous activities within the Gateway. Specifically, the team focused on creating AR-based interfaces to assist astronauts in performing two activities within the Gateway:

  1. Perform a service task involving replacement of a RAM board on a laptop.
  2. Transfer a payload from one location to another within the Gateway.

The team focused on creating AR-based training simulators for RAM replacement and payload storage scenario. The designed User Interfaces support autonomous operation of the Gateway and associated modules. 

The team found that design and implementation of prototype software tools with associated graphics and immersive AR capabilities could be used as validation contexts for design and operation of the targeted set of user interfaces.

Space Life and Physical Science

Students from the Ohio State University team created a volume-optimized, semi-autonomous plant growth system to provide a sustainable food source in space. The design is an autonomous expanding sphere that uses Hoberman’s sphere technology. When cued by the plant growth monitoring system, a step motor rotates to expand the sphere at a set interval based on the inner diameter of the sphere and plant size. The sphere houses a central lighting console supported by telescoping arms that use adjustable red, green, blue, and white LEDs to maintain the plant lighting requirement—even when the plants grow larger and move farther away from the light source.

Ohio State University, Wooster

The Ohio State University team’s example of the Hoberman’s sphere structure at maximum expansion (30.5”). (Credits: Ohio State University)

Students from the Ohio State University team created a volume-optimized, semi-autonomous plant growth system to provide a sustainable food source in space. The design is an autonomous expanding sphere that uses Hoberman’s sphere technology. When cued by the plant growth monitoring system, a step motor rotates to expand the sphere at a set interval based on the inner diameter of the sphere and plant size. The sphere houses a central lighting console supported by telescoping arms that use adjustable red, green, blue, and white LEDs to maintain the plant lighting requirement—even when the plants grow larger and move farther away from the light source.

Auburn University, Alabama

Students from the University of Auburn team recognized the importance of growing food onboard during long space missions. In response, the team designed an autonomous growth chamber to manage plant growth and maximize space usage. The growing system works automatically to maintain the health of plants by controlling root moisture and adding water with nutrients when needed. For example, intelligent pots with moisture sensors are connected to a ground station that record when the plants dry out and command a robot mechanism when to irrigate individual pots. The system is also able to relocate plants to a larger space once they have grown too large and discard plants that are not healthy enough or have not germinated.

University of Miami, Coral Gables

Students from the University of Miami team optimized available volume for food production and defined food production volume requirements for deep space missions. After analyzing viable solutions, the team created Crop Environment for the Resupply and Extension of Space missions (CERES), an automated growth volume with modular robotic racks that can be updated, modified, or repaired on site. CERES performs the function of a greenhouse and caretaker for varying types of crops. Its racks provide lighting, nutrient delivery, and sensing throughout the life cycle of pre-selected plants.


Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI)

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Students from the University of Michigan team recognized the need for advanced technology development for extravehicular activity (EVA) procedures to ensure astronauts are well-equipped for lunar surface exploration and high demands of extreme environments. In response, the team developed the AR Toolkit for Lunar Astronauts and Scientists (ATLAS), an AR system using the Microsoft HoloLens, an existing piece of AR hardware, designed to be a tool for astronauts on lunar expeditions. ATLAS provides seamless access to relevant data and information without unwanted intrusions through the use of protocols. Each protocol is catered to a particular aspect of the EVA life cycle, including pre-operational mission planning, suit preparation, sample collection operations, repair guidance, emergency warnings, and abort procedures.


X-Hab is sponsored by Advanced Exploration Systems (AES), a division in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in collaboration with the Office of STEM Engagement and Minority University Research Education Program (MUREP).

To learn more about X-Hab, visit:  www.nasa.gov/exploration/technology/deep_space_habitat/xhab