Federal News Radio Interview with Dr. Robert Hodson on
The BIG Idea Challenge and The Future of Spaceflight

NASA aims to put people on Mars someday. Maybe in our lifetimes. When they land, what will they do first? Whatever it is, it will probably need electricity. But there’s no grid on Mars. That’s where NASA’s Big Idea Challenge comes in. Robert Hodson, deputy program manager for NASA’s Game Changing Development program, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss the finalists and what it could mean for spaceflight.

Congratulations to our 2018 Competing Teams!

Norwich University
Title: Norwich Inflatable Mars Solar Array (NIMSA)
Advisor: Dr. Brian Bradke

Princeton University
Title: Horus
Advisor: Dr. Andrej Kosmrlj

Texas A&M University
Title: Utilization of Solar Cell Umbrellas to Provide Long-Term Photovoltaic Solar Power on Mars
Advisor: Dr. Magdalini Lagoudas

The University of Colorado, Boulder
Title: MAFSA: Mars Autonomous and Foldable Solar Array
Advisor: Dr. Kyri Baker

The University of Virginia
Title: Photovoltaic Balloon for Autonomous Energy Generation on Mars
Advisor: Dr. Mool C. Gupta

The 2018 BIG Idea Competition

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 GCD-sponsored engineering design competition seeks innovative ideas from the academic community for Mars surface solar arrays. Supplying reliable electric power for human missions on the Martian surface is a critical technology need. Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems provide a viable option but require creative engineering design and judicious operational approaches to assure successful use on Mars.

Participation in the BIG Idea Challenge 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.

Based on a review of proposed Mars surface solar array concepts submitted by interested teams, up to 4 teams will be chosen to compete at the 2018 BIG Idea Forum at either the NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC) in Hampton, VA or the NASA Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland, OH. Each team will receive a monetary award to facilitate full participation in the BIG Idea Forum. The top winning team members will receive NASA internship offers for the following summer and be hosted by either NASA LaRC or NASA GRC.


Potential human missions to the Mars surface in the 2030s may use large photovoltaic (PV) solar arrays to generate electric power for landers, habitats, In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) plants, science laboratories, and to charge energy storage systems for night power. Preliminary human Mars surface power requirements are projected to be approximately 40 kilowatts, day and night. Because of the critical nature of electrical power, this equipment may be prepositioned and validated prior to human landings. A promising approach is to deliver stowed PV arrays on Mars cargo landers and deploy them using the lander deck for support. The total power requirement may be satisfied using multiple landers that arrive on Mars over a series of missions. Each lander might include multiple modular solar array wings that form an integrated system, or a single monolithic structure that supports the PV blankets.

Regardless of the configuration, autonomous deployment is anticipated with no on-site human intervention to assist in the installation. Preliminary NASA estimates indicate the need for deployed PV surface areas of at least 1000 m2 per lander. The power produced will depend on the landing site (Mars latitude), season/distance from the sun (Mars orbital position), time of day (sun angle relative to array), and the extent of dust blockage (either on the array surface or suspended in the atmosphere), as well as any PV cell degradation that occurs over time in the Mars environment.

This solicitation seeks innovations in the design, installation, and sustainable operation of a large solar power system on the surface of Mars. The design aspects should consider lightweight structures, compact stowage, and high PV efficiency. The installation aspects should consider lander integration, robust deployment/retraction mechanisms, and fast/reliable deployment. The sustainable operation aspects should consider array performance under varying Mars environmental conditions including solar flux changes due to daily sun angle, season, and landing site latitude as well as impacts of extended dust storms on array power output. A key objective is to identify practical methods to prevent dust accumulation on the array surface or methods to remove dust once it has collected. These solar array systems are expected to supply reliable electric power for multiple crew campaigns that may span 10 years or more. Successful proposals will include appropriate levels of engineering design and power system analysis to validate the concept.

The 2018 BIG Idea Challenge seeks novel concepts that emphasize innovative mechanical design, low mass and high efficiency, with viable operational approaches that assure sustained power generation on the Mars surface over the Martian year and during extended dust storms. Since the cargo landers will have limited battery power after touchdown, the solar arrays must be deployed and producing power soon after landing. The deployment analysis should include estimates of required power and the time duration for the array deployment. If solar tracking is proposed, arguments should be provided to justify why this approach is superior to fixed solar arrays based on performance, cost, and risk. Of special interest are modular array designs that are self-supporting in 1-g and can be autonomously deployed, and optionally retracted, relocated, and interfaced with other power sources on the Mars surface. The overall Concept of Operations (ConOps) should be clearly described including all design assumptions.

This solicitation seeks innovations in the following areas for Mars solar arrays:

  • Novel packaging, deployment, retraction, and dust-abatement concepts
  • Lightweight, compact components including booms, ribs, substrates, and mechanisms
  • Optimized use of advanced ultra-lightweight materials and high efficiency solar cells
  • Validated modeling, analysis, and simulation techniques
  • High-fidelity, functioning laboratory models and test methods


  • Innovative Design
  • Creative operational approaches
  • Use of technologies that could be ready for use on Mars in the early 2030s
  • Effective packaging for launch and Mars landing
  • Viable lander-based deployment methods
  • Reliable, long-term power generation in the Mars environment

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

BIG Idea program staff will respond to questions presented by eligible student and faculty from accredited colleges and universities in the United States
(and international team participants formally affiliated with a US-based university team).