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ASU Team Makes Finals In NASA Moon Probe Competition

Students from Arizona State University's Luminosity Lab are one of eight teams to reach the final round of NASA's 2020 BIG Idea Challenge, a competition to create a system for studying permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) at the moon's poles.

Scientists think lunar PSRs, which receive no sunlight due to their orientation, may hold ice that could provide water or rocket fuel to support human exploration.

To study them, NASA needs something cheap, light and able to withstand temperatures colder then Pluto.

As team leader Tyler Smith explained, that's a tall order.

"Not only are they cold, but they're dark, so you can't use solar power. How do you get something in there to collect data and then get that data back out?" Smith said.

So NASA made the challenge the centerpiece of this year's Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge. The competition offers undergraduate and graduate students a chance to develop space exploration technologies for missions from the moon to Mars.

Finalists receive funding to build and test their ideas.

The team's solution involves a spring-loaded device that would travel to the moon on a lander. There it would launch insulated, softball-sized probes equipped with built-in sensors and Wi-Fi, which could be used to set up a network.

"And that mesh network will allow the probes to communicate with each other as well as with the lander. And then it could also be used to establish a network if there is another vehicle in the field," said Smith, who is associate director in charge of the lab's engineering projects.

The current plan involves firing three probes to different distances from the lander. If they cannot transmit their data, the fourth probe will launch and relay their communication as it flies overhead.

The team insulated the probes in part using beta cloth, a durable, fireproof material used in space suits, rovers and the International Space Station.

The entire assembly weighs around 33 pounds (15 kilograms). Smith says it's about the size of a Home Depot kitchen moving box, or two feet cubed.

The team will make its final presentation to NASA judges in early January.

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Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk from 2016 to 2024.