University Teams Selected by NASA to Develop Deep Space Exploration Systems Prototypes

NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation have selected 11 university teams to design systems, concepts and technologies to potentially support the agency’s deep space exploration capabilities.

The selections are part of the eXploration Systems and Habitation (X-Hab) 2020 Academic Innovation Challenge and include proposals to advance 3D printing in space, optimize food production, develop user interfaces for autonomous operations and help to advance CO2 recovery processes. The challenge allows NASA to access new ideas and emerging concepts while engaging the next generation of talented engineers.

X-Hab teams will develop proposed systems and structures into functional prototypes during the 2019-2020 academic year. As part of this process, the teams will complete engineering design reviews and provide three project status briefings to NASA, before presenting final prototypes for evaluation in May 2020.

“The X-Hab challenge enables NASA to gain innovative approaches from university teams in concert with NASA expertise,” said John Guidi, deputy director for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “In return, the students are learning genuine hardware and systems engineering development processes that will carry over into their professional careers.”

The X-Hab 2020 Academic Innovation Challenge projects are:


  • University of Maryland, College Park
    Design and Evaluation of Requirements for Minimum Crew Cabin Volumes and Configurations
    Students will investigate the design of minimal cabin volumes for near-term exploration missions, such as lunar landers, to determine the effect of cabin sizing and configurations on operability, habitability and mission performance.

Life Support

  • University of South Alabama, Mobile
    Technical Evaluation of Methods to Recover Liquids from Gas in Microgravity
    Students will develop and execute a test and evaluation management plan to evaluate the ability of 4-6 commercial hydrophobic and omniphobic materials to affect gas/liquid separations under microgravity flow conditions.
  • University of North Texas, Denton
    Microgravity Gas-Liquid Separator For the Liquid Amine CO2 Removal System
    Students will build upon terrestrial CO2 absorber/strippers systems to test and characterize a vortex phase separator prototype system that will provide insights for further development of a liquid amine CO2 removal system.
  • Iowa State University, Ames
    High Efficiency Heat Exchanger to Achieve Low-Power CO2 Deposition
    Students will design a two-stage heat exchanger using 3-4 heat transfer correlations and computation which will result in a small-scale prototype that will separate air (O2/N2 mixture) from carbon dioxide and volatile organics.

In-Space Manufacturing

  • Rice University, Houston, Texas
    Design of a Core Shapefile Repository for Prototyping in Space
    Students will develop a parametric-based repository of 3D shapefiles as a practical tool for just-in-time problem-solving. It will include basic and everyday repair and maintenance needs on the space station and in deep space.

NASA Platform for Autonomous Systems (NPAS)

  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
    Next Generation User Interfaces for Gateway Autonomous Operations
    Students will design and develop user interfaces for Gateway and other autonomous spacecraft. The goal is to understand the information that dictates autonomous spacecraft processes and communicate that information efficiently.
  • Oklahoma State University, Stillwater
    Next Generation User Interfaces for Gateway Autonomous Operations
    Students will design user interfaces based on Human-centric principles and explore the adoption of next-generation virtual reality techniques and technologies to facilitate immersive validation of proposed designs.

Space Life Sciences

  • Ohio State University, Wooster
    Volume Optimization for Food Production During Deep Space Exploration
    Students will improve the efficiency of plant growing volume for space missions by developing dual-usage solutions for space as well as day-to-day application for vertical farming in urban environments.
  • Auburn University, Alabama
    Volume Optimization for Food Production During Deep Space Exploration
    Students will design, build and test an electromechanical plant growth chamber that can automatically sense, actuate and control functions to maintain growth during a long duration Mars mission.
  • University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida
    Volume Optimization for Food Production During Deep Space Exploration
    Students will optimize available volume for food production and define the food production volume requirements for deep space missions. They will develop and analyze viable solutions and provide a functional prototype.

Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI)

  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
    Integration of Field Results into Virtual and Augmented Reality Environments
    Students will design and build a program that is able to be integrated into the FieldTrek/MoonTrek software suite. It will manage data from the software suite and be able to display it in an augmented virtual reality environment.

Proposals were submitted in early 2019, and the selection kicks off a yearlong process to develop the prototypes. The projects will be consistent with senior- and graduate-level design curricula while emphasizing hands-on design, research, development and manufacturing. Project teams will work toward a series of milestones to design, manufacture, assemble and test their systems and concepts in close cooperation with NASA experts in Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications and Advanced Exploration Systems.

In August, through a competitive process, NASA selected the National Space Grant Foundation to administer X-Hab grants to universities through 2022. Through support from the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate and the Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Program, grants were awarded up to $50,000 to support each university team.

The X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge supports NASA research efforts to enable sustained and affordable human and robotic space exploration, and demonstrates the agency’s commitment to developing the highly-skilled scientific, engineering and technical workforce of the future. Charged with returning to the Moon within five years, NASA’s lunar exploration plans are based on a two-phase approach: the first is focused on speed – landing on the Moon by 2024 – while the second will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028. We then will use what we learn on the Moon to prepare to send astronauts to Mars.

For more information about previous challenges and current requirements, visit: