NASA Invites Students to Help Land Manned Craft on Mars


US space agency NASA is looking to follow up the successful landing of Curiosity on Mars with heavy manned spacecrafts on the planet. While Curiosity weights about 1 ton, a crewed-mission landing will weigh between 15 to 30 tons. To achieve this, NASA has challenged undergraduate and graduate students to think about how the inflatable spacecraft can safely and quickly land on Mars’ thin atmosphere.

For this purpose, NASA launched the Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. Teams of  university and college students are welcomed to submit white papers with concepts on how NASA, using inflatable spacecraft heat shields, can send the first people to Mars.

Mars’ thin atmosphere is one of the most challenging issues NASA has to tackle with a crewed Mars mission. The agency has to come up with a safe and fast way to slow down the spacecraft’s payload and ensure it doesn’t crash or break during landing.

At the moment, NASA is experimenting with inflatable spacecraft heat shields known as the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD) technology. These aeroshells can deliver approximately 22 tons on the Red Planet by decelerating and delivering the substantial spacecraft payload through aerodynamic drag. To date, Curiosity is the heaviest cargo ever to land on the Red Planet.

“Nasa is currently developing and flight testing HIADs. A crewed spacecraft landing on Mars would weigh between 15 and 30 tons,” Steve Gaddis from Nasa’s Langley Research Center said.

NASA added in a press release that this technology could have other uses for space exploration, too:

“HIAD technology is a leading idea because these kinds of aeroshells can also generate lift, which would allow the agency to potentially do different kinds of missions.”

Through the Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, the agency wants teams of three to five undergraduate and graduate students to propose their ideas by November 15.

The 10 teams selected will then be invited to submit a 15-page full technical paper on their proposal in the spring of 2016. Then, four or fewer finalist teams will get a chance to present their ideas to a NASA panel of judges face to face in April, 2016.

Finalists will receive $6,000 to help them develop their HIAD idea. The winning team will get a NASA internship offer at the Langley Research Center with the GCD team. It is also likely that the winning team will have an opportunity to participate in a flight test of their concept.

The initiative is managed by NASA’s Technology Mission Directorate.