Seven University Teams Selected to Design Prototypes for 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge

Proposals selected advance development of 3D printer technology and printing capabilities, develop and improve long-term plant growth and water recycling systems, and design new conceptual habitats


Space news (new space technology: deep space habitats; the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge) – NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division headquarters – 

This map shows the relative location and project of each of the seven teams selected for 2017 challenge. Credits: NASA

NASA and partner the National Space Grant Foundation recently announced the selection of seven university teams to design and build the prototypes proposed as part of the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge. The teams selected have the 2016 – 2017 academic year to develop their proposal into functional, working prototypes astronauts could use around the International Space Station. At the same time, they’ll gain valuable hands-on design and engineering skills and experience necessary to achieve their goals in the years ahead. During the school year, teams selected complete scheduled reviews of engineering designs and conduct three proposal status meetings with NASA officials before submitting finished prototypes in May 2017. 

“The X-Hab challenge allows NASA to access new ideas and emerging concepts while providing undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in technology development,” said Tracy Gill, who leads the X-Hab activity from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We are particularly excited to see returning teams that are successfully continuing to build on the designs and lessons learned from prior years.” 

Seven university teams were selected to design, engineer and build useful, handy prototypes astronauts could use on a daily basis to make life in space and on the International Space Station easier to manage. Each team receives a grant up to $30,000, which is managed by the National Space Grant Foundation on behalf of NASA and the American people. To support each team’s work on designing and developing useful prototypes to make life in space, and on Earth, easier to manage during the decades ahead. 

The seven university teams selected to complete the 2017 X-Hab Academic Innovation Challenge are: 

Being able to recycle the material you used to construct necessary tools during a long space journey or while colonizing Mars is a neat trick. Students at the University of Connecticut are working on developing a recycling plan for integrated 3-D printer technology that will be used during future space missions. It will be capable of both manufacturing and recycling polymer parts and will address the form, fit, and function of polymer parts being refitted during their entire lifespan. The ability to reuse the material used to construct items made by integrated 3-D printer technology will save space, energy, and other resources, which will reduce the number of resupply missions required during long space missions. 

Engineers and designers have only scratched the surface of possible uses of the integrated 3-D printer technology on the International Space Station. The Young geniuses at the University of Maryland are working on new technology designed and engineered to utilize 3-D printing to make strong, rigid parts for the pressurized spacesuits astronauts need to work and live in space. They plan on using mostly additive manufacturing technologies to design and engineer low-friction bearings, rotary seals and pressure seals for state-of-the-art spacesuits. This technology could help develop other applications for deep space exploration and the eventual colonization of Mars. 

Medical professionals studying the physical and medical problems associated with long term space travel and living on Mars say the build up of CO2’s a problem for astronauts. A team of student innovators and inventors at the University of Colorado are working on developing technology to reduce the levels of CO2 during space voyages of the future. They’re working on improving the processes used to remove CO2 concentrations, which can adversely affect astronaut performance and health during future space missions. Necessary technology for the success any trip to the Red Planet and the survival of future colonists planning on living on Mars. 


Preparing food grown during a long space journey or while colonizing the Red Planet’s going to be an adventure in itself. Designer, engineers, and scientists of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York are planning on perfecting their Mars Transit Habitat design. This time, they plan on using elements from their design for a kitchen and sleeping pod for a Mars transit habitat concept not requiring redesigned as their template for a kitchen and sleeping pod concept for a Mars surface habitat. Unfortunately, the astronauts heading into space and living on Mars won’t find any Star Trek Food Replicators in the Pratt Institute’s kitchen designs. Guess they’ll have to make do with instant coffee and pre-packaged, processed foods.  

The Pratt Institute's Mars Transit Habitat Concept. Credits: The Pratt Institute
Normally we spend over one third of our lives on Earth sleeping and eating. Will it be different living on a spacecraft in space? The Pratt Institute’s Mars Transit Habitat Concept is a step in the direction of eating and sleeping comfortably during our trips across the solar system and beyond.
Credits: The Pratt Institute

Making sure internal systems of all habitat systems and modules needed to ensure a successful trip to Mars are compatible and interchangeable will make the trip and life on the Red Planet easier. Design geniuses from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are working on constructing the communications, controls and environmental systems needed to integrate NASA’s Stafford Deep Space Habitat (SDSH) and Martian Reconfiguration Habitat (ReHAB). This team has also been working on systems for NASA’s Multi-purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) and the Organics and Agricultural Sustainment Inflatable System (OASIS). All the internal systems of the individual components sent to Mars will need to be completely compatible. It will make implementation, maintenance, and repair of systems easier for astronauts heading into space and colonizing Mars. 

Eating the right amount of food during a long space journey through the solar system or to Mars is a problem for astronauts. You can’t just take along all the foodstuffs you need to ensure you get the required amount of calories and vitamins. Ingenious engineers and designers from Ohio State University in Wooster are working on perfecting previous improvements they made to NASA’s Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the International Space Station. Presently, they’re working on eliminating air bubbles in the water column between the water reservoir and plants while keeping root oxygen levels sufficient for growth, which improves water capillary transport. They’re also evaluating the feasibility of recycling plant biomass to use as soil, which will reduce the need to launch it into space. Fresh vegetables to consume during a long space trip to Mars is a thumbs up to the team. 

The Ohio State University's passive water delivery system. Credits: The Ohio State University
The Ohio State University’s passive water delivery system is designed to provide water to grow vegetables to keep astronauts healthy during long periods or trips in space.
Credits: The Ohio State University

Wastewater treatment during long-term space travel or on Mars isn’t going to be the simple flush and forget it’s on Earth. A team of engineers and designers from the University of Michigan are working on a next generation system to clean and recycle the limited amount of water that will be available during any space trip. They’ll also work on designs for wastewater treatment systems usable in low gravity environments, like the surface of the Moon or the Red Planet. The water isn’t going to be the freshest in the solar system, but it will be wet, and wonderful to drink during a long journey across the solar system. 

What’s next?

The seven teams in this challenge submitted proposals early in 2016 that were selected by officials. During the 2016-2017 academic year, each team will work towards a number of milestones on the road to designing, manufacturing, assembling, and testing proposed systems and concepts. They’ll work shoulder to shoulder with scientists and engineers of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications and Advanced Exploration Systems divisions. Together they’ll advance technology in additive manufacturing, advanced life support systems, and space habitation and food production systems. Just seven groups of big kids playing with their new toys and dreaming of the things they can do with them. 

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