NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge

Engaging Universities in NASA’s Mission to Develop Space Exploration Technologies for the Moon to Mars

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update

The BIG Idea Challenge Program team has been closely monitoring developments of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and are aware that many of your universities have restricted or suspended physical access to campuses that may impact your team’s ability to build and test your BIG Idea Challenge concept as proposed.

At this time, the 2020 BIG Idea Challenge is NOT being cancelled, and the expectation is that teams will still continue working on their projects to the best of their abilities, noting any adjustments to the timeline, budget, and/or scope of your project in your Mid-Point Report submission. Judges and Program Staff understand that this is a world-wide public health issue outside of the teams’ control, and anticipate that most teams will need to make mitigation plans and adjustments to their originally proposed development and testing plans.

Announcing the 2020 BIG Idea Challenge Awardees

For more information, see the Feature Story.

Arizona State University
VELOS - Variable Exploratory Lunar Observation System
Faculty Advisors: James Bell and Tyler Smith

Colorado School of Mines with the University of Arizona
Lunar Autonomous Scalable Emitter and Receiver (LASER) System
Faculty Advisor: George Sowers

Dartmouth College
SHREWs: Strategic Highly-compliant Roving Explorers of other Worlds
Faculty Advisor: Laura Ray

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Multifunctional Expandable Lunar Lite and Tall Tower (MELLTT)
Faculty Advisors: Jeffrey Hoffman, Dava Newman, Olivier de Weck

Michigan Technological University
T-REX (Tethered - permanently shaded Region EXplorer)
Faculty Advisor: Paul van Susante

Northeastern University
Faculty Advisors: Alireza Ramezani and Taskin Padir

Pennsylvania State University
Instrument for Performing Light Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) in a Lunar Permanently Shadowed Region (PSR)
Faculty Advisor: Sven Bilén, Joseph Portelli, and Jess McTernan

University of Virginia
Beaming of Energy via Laser for Lunar Exploration (BELLE)
Faculty Advisor: Mool Gupta
Industry Advisor: Paul Jaffe (US Naval Research Laboratory)

The 2020 BIG Idea Challenge

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.

The BIG Idea Challenge also offers real world experience for university students in the development of the systems needed to support NASA’s exploration goals. For this reason, the Space Grant Consortium is supporting this year’s challenge. In FY20, Space Grant is leveraging funds to help develop the next line of a STEM-trained workforce with skills and experience aligned directly with STMD technology focus areas and capability needs.

The 2020 BIG Idea Challenge provides undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to design, build, and test a low-cost sample payload targeted for delivery to the lunar surface. The proposed payload should demonstrate technology systems needed for exploration and science in the Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) in and near the lunar polar regions. This competition is intended to be an open innovation challenge with minimal constraints so that proposing teams can genuinely create and develop out-of-the-box solutions.

Through the 2020 BIG Idea Challenge, NASA seeks innovative ideas from the academic community for a wide variety of concepts, systems, and technology demonstrations supported by solid engineering rigor that will address near-term technology capability requirements to support NASA’s exploration objectives for PSRs in and near the Moon’s polar regions. Specifically, teams of students and their faculty advisors were invited to propose innovative solutions with supporting original engineering and analysis in response to one of the following areas:

      Exploration of PSRs in lunar polar regions
      Technologies to support lunar in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) in a PSR
      Capabilities to explore and operate in PSRs


Although it is Earth’s closest neighbor, there is still much to learn about the Moon, particularly in the Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) near the lunar polar regions that have remained dark for billions of years.

NASA plans to land humans on the Moon by 2024 with the Artemis program. But before astronauts step on the lunar surface again, rigorous science and exploration activities on the Moon will be conducted to reduce technical and programmatic risk for the human missions. These robotic precursor missions will further investigate regions of interest to human explorers, including the Moon’s polar regions, and will provide information to the engineers designing modern lunar surface systems.

NASA is engaging the university community for ideas to help achieve some of these activities through the 2020 BIG Idea Challenge, which asked university teams to submit proposals for sample lunar payloads that can demonstrate technology systems needed to explore areas of the Moon that never see the light of day.

South Pole Lunar Illumination Map

Map of the average illumination at the lunar south pole showing PSRs