NASA is inviting college students to design technologies that can be integrated into a habitat in which future astronauts could live and work in deep space.

The offer is called the 2013 Exploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge, and it is an effort by the space agency to promote science learning and help inspire a new generation of creative engineers.

The challenge asks students to submit, by May 2, applications that show plans for the design, manufacture, assembly and testing of an inflatable loft that can be incorporated into an existing NASA-built operational hard-shell protytpe.

This year, students can choose from projects that include photovoltaic solar arrays, a workstation to support human-robotic collaboration or a telepresence and holodeck conceptual system.

In the 2012 Challenge, NASA picked four university teams to compete against each other. The teams are from the University of Maryland at College Park; Oklahoma State University; Ohio State University and the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Their designs are due next month and a winner is expected to be named this summer.

Here, according to the NASA website, are what the four schools are working on:

Two of the universities are assigned to design, analyze, manufacture, and assemble subsystems that will be needed on a deep space habitat:

Ohio State University: Design, manufacture, and assemble a Plant Growth System that is capable of growing a small number of edible plants to supplement the crew diet. The system will autonomously water the plants, check their current status using a variety of instruments and cameras, and provide for lighting. The Plant Growth System operating software will be incorporated in the habitat control system software that is already running all the other major subsystems in the AES-HS prototype Habitat Demonstration Unit (HDU) Deep Space Habitat (DSH).

University of Bridgeport, Connecticut: Design, manufacture, and assemble a Sample Handling System that will function inside the GeoLab glovebox. The Sample Handling System will include 3-axis (i.e., XYZ) translation, rotation in six degrees of freedom of a sample (rock, etc.) in microgravity, and include cameras, sensors, etc. The Sample Handling System operating software will also be incorporated in the HDU-DSH habitat control system software.

Two other universities will build full-size habitat mockups at their respective universities, and perform studies on volume, ergonomics, and other issues that would be linked to a particular geometry of a pressurized environment. These two studies should help the AES-HS project with equipment modularity, orientation, and other habitability issues:

University of Maryland, College Park: Design a mission to the first Earth-Moon Lagrange point (EML-1) for 90 days using primarily a vertically-oriented habitat and perform habitability tests in a full-scale mock-up.

Oklahoma State University: Design a mission to EML-1 for 90 days using primarily a horizontally-oriented habitat and perform habitability tests in a full-scale mock-up.

A team from the University of Wisconsin at Madison won the 2011 Challenge.

Winners receive between $10,000 and $49,000 to produce functional products based on their designs. Past projects have included an inflatable loft for crew sleeping quarters, plant growth systems and sample handling tools.

Here’s how to apply.


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