NASA’s BIG Idea Challenge

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

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.

Participation in the 2020 BIG Idea Challenge is limited to teams of undergraduate and graduate students at accredited U.S.-based colleges and universities officially affiliated with their state’s Space Grant Consortium. However, non-Space Grant affiliated colleges/universities may partner with a lead Space Grant University. The BIG Idea challenge allows students to incorporate their coursework into real aerospace design concepts and work together in a team environment. Multi-university and interdisciplinary teams are encouraged.

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 are 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

Based on the review of robust proposals, 5-10 university teams (the lead institution for each team must be a Space Grant-affiliated school) will be selected to build their proposed low-cost ISRU, prospecting, or mobility systems payload. Teams will be responsible for setting up and executing their own proof-of-concept demonstration testing, based on what was described in the proposal. This may be accomplished via modeling and simulation, a physical demonstration, video, etc. Teams are encouraged to be creative and design their own accurate and realistically simulated proof-of-concept testing possible. 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.

Each team will submit a detailed and realistic budget in their proposals, not to exceed $180K. A wide range of award sizes is expected (in the amount of $50K to $180K), depending on the score of the work proposed. We anticipate funding several larger-scope awards (typically $125-$180K) and several smaller-scope awards (typically $50K - $124K). Proposers are encouraged to request what is actually needed to conduct the proposed work.


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 is asking 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.

      To enable sustainable human exploration of the Moon in the coming decade, NASA is looking for innovative, low-cost concepts to perform or support lunar prospecting and resource utilization.

      NASA’s LCROSS mission provided data that suggests that some Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs) near the lunar poles contain buried deposits of cold, crystalline ice. Water ice would be a very valuable resource for human exploration. More knowledge about PSRs is needed to plan missions that can provide a detailed survey.
      South Pole Lunar Illumination Map

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

      To develop effective systems to map and extract water ice from PSRs at the lunar poles, the characteristics of the surface must be known for mobility system design and also how the water ice is mixed with the regolith must be understood for ISRU system design. A low-cost method of sampling these regions must be developed to inform the design of larger surveyor missions and ISRU demonstrators. This must be done prior to the detailed design of these systems to reduce technical and programmatic risks.

      Lunar prospecting concepts are needed to better characterize the permanently shadowed regions in and near the lunar poles, including understanding where and how water could be found. Demonstrations of lunar resource utilization technologies are needed to understand how to extract and process the resources found from that prospecting.
      NASA is also seeking innovative concepts for mobility, power, and operations to enable lunar prospecting and resource utilization in permanently shadowed regions.

Interested and eligible? Learn more on the Competition Basics page!