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NASA picks moon catapults, lasers, electricity and other wild lunar projects for student contest

An artist's depiction of machinery working in a permanently shadowed crater on the moon.
An artist's depiction of machinery working in a permanently shadowed crater on the moon. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA has awarded nearly $1 million to student teams looking to deploy robots, towers and other technologies alongside moon-roaming astronauts.

The agency's Artemis program plans to return humans to the lunar surface in 2024 supported by a suite of robotic helpers, many of which will be delivered through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which includes several commercial companies

The students now receiving Artemis funding, however, are focusing on a narrow challenge: creating instruments that will work in permanently shadowed craters on the moon. Such craters are useful areas for human exploration, because their shadows can retain water ice, which could be used to support missions by providing drinking water or rocket fuel. 

Related: NASA's Artemis moon program just photobombed a spacewalk (photo)

But these regions are also incredibly hostile. The equipment will need to withstand the cold and be powered in some way that keeps rovers and other machines going in permanent darkness.

NASA selected eight teams to receive between $80,000 and $165,000 apiece to continue developing their projects. In a previous statement, NASA said that once conceptual testing is complete, it may give students a chance to launch their payloads to the moon if the student ideas are deemed viable. Presumably, this would also depend on mission requirements, which strictly limit instruments, based on the goals of a particular flight.

The projects include an Arizona State University proposal to launch spherical sensor-laden probes from a catapult attached to a lunar lander, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposal to develop a lightweight tower that can serve as a communications relay and instrument platform, several rover concepts, and a couple of proposals for using lasers to power other equipment.

"I look forward to seeing the inventive designs come to life, as well as how they can advance our exploration capabilities in permanently shadowed craters on the moon," Drew Hope, game changing development program manager at NASA's Langley Research Center, said in a statement.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.