NASA awards University of Utah top honours in BIG Idea Lunar Forge Challenge 

November 22, 2023

November 22, 2023

A member of the winning team of NASA’s 2023’s BIG Idea Challenge working on their Lunar Forge project, Production of Steel from Lunar Regolith through Carbonyl Iron Refining (Courtesy NASA)
A member of the winning team of NASA’s 2023’s BIG Idea Challenge working on their Lunar Forge project, Production of Steel from Lunar Regolith through Carbonyl Iron Refining (Courtesy NASA)

A team from the University of Utah, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, in partnership with its Powder Metallurgy Research Laboratory, has earned NASA’s Artemis Award for its lunar forge project ‘Production of Steel from Lunar Regolith through Carbonyl Iron Refining (CIR).’ The award, which represents the top honours in the 2023 BIG Idea Challenge, is given to the team whose concept has the best potential to contribute to and be integrated into an Artemis mission.

Through Artemis, NASA plans to conduct long-duration human and robotic missions on the lunar surface in preparation for future crewed exploration of Mars. Expanding exploration capabilities requires a robust lunar infrastructure, including practical and cost-effective ways to construct a lunar base. One method is employing in-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) – or the ability to use naturally occurring resources – to produce consumables and build structures in the future, which is expected to make explorers more Earth-independent.

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“There were multiple times we came close to scrapping the concept, but each time we found the strength to go a little farther,” stated Collin Andersen, Team Lead, University of Utah and Powder Metallurgy Research Laboratory. “Our small group was driven by a genuine belief in the concept and curiosity of what would happen. This honour has validated the perseverance, effort, and dedication of exploring an innovative and applied idea. Participating in this challenge has allowed us to gain a tremendous and unique experience in technical and collaboration skills. We are incredibly grateful for this opportunity and for the friends we made along the way!”

An ISRU process that NASA wants to learn more about is forging metals from lunar minerals to create structures and tools in the future. Through its 2023 Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Lunar Forge Challenge, NASA sought concepts from university students to design an ISRU metal production pipeline on the Moon. The year-and-a-half-long challenge, funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and Office of STEM Engagement, supports NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative in developing new approaches and novel technologies to pave the way for successful exploration on the surface of the Moon.

Teams could select to address technologies needed along any point in the lunar metal production pipeline, including, but not limited to:

  • Metal detecting
  • Metal refining
  • Forming materials for Additive Manufacturing
  • Testing and qualifying additively manufactured infrastructure for use on the Moon

In January, teams submitted proposal packages, from which seven finalists were selected in March 2023 for funding of up to $180,000, totalling nearly $1.1 million across all teams. The finalists then worked for nine months designing, developing, and demonstrating their concepts.

The 2023 BIG Idea programme concluded at its annual forum, where teams presented their results and answered questions from judges, followed by an interactive poster session. Experts from NASA and other aerospace companies evaluated the student concepts based on technical innovation, credibility, management, and teams’ verification testing. In addition to the presentation, the teams provided a technical paper and technical poster detailing their proposed metal production pipeline.

“This was a fantastic experience for both the student and NASA participants,” stated Niki Werkheiser, Director of Technology Maturation within STMD. “The university concepts for how to forge metal on the Moon were inspiring and resulted in diverse, novel approaches for the agency to consider, as well as an extensive learning experience for students. The BIG Idea Challenge proves time and time again that engaging the academic community in complex technology challenges is a worthwhile endeavour for everyone involved.”

Team presentations, technical papers, and digital posters are available on the BIG Idea website.

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November 22, 2023

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