The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is tapping university students to solve one of space exploration's persisting problems: lunar dust.

NASA's latest invitation to students is a part of its plans for making human exploration of the moon sustainable. The problem is that the moon's native dust particles stick to almost any kind of surface. Its small granules can scratch camera lenses and recording equipment. Worse, these dust particles can infiltrate habitats and pose health risks to astronauts once inhaled.

"Removing lunar dust from where it's not supposed to be--or stopping it from getting there in the first place--is essential for future space exploration," the NASA statement read.

The NASA BIG Ideas Challenge

The search for the lunar dust solution comes through the space agency's annual "Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Ideas Challenge." It provides an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to create and implement their design for dust mitigation or even dust-tolerant technologies intended for lunar applications.

Titled "Dust Mitigation Technologies for Lunar Applications," NASA seeks solutions in four specified areas. It includes the Landing Dust Prevention and Mitigation, which aims to protect space assets, especially landing equipment, from plume interactions. Another area, Spacesuit Dust Tolerance and Mitigation, focuses on reducing dust buildup and penetration on spacesuits and its subsystems. 

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NASA's board of judges will select between five to ten teams. Chosen teams will be granted $180,000 to design, build, test, and demonstrate their proposed solution to the longstanding problem.

The competition is open to teams of five to twenty-five students, graduate or undergraduate, from accredited institutions in the US. These colleges and universities should also be affiliated with the Space Grant Consortium for their respective states. Partnerships with industry entities are also encouraged.

Eligible teams planning to participate should submit a notice of intent by September 25, 2020. The deadline for accompanying proposals and video materials is on December 13. Chosen finalists will be presenting their game-changing ideas in the November 2021 BIG Idea Forum. The event will be attended by academics, as well as subject matter experts both from the agency and from the industry.

A Challenge to the Artemis Generation

"This competition gives students an unparalleled opportunity as members of the Artemis generation to help overcome the historically challenging technical obstacles of mitigating lunar dust," Niki Werkheiser said. Werkheiser is the program executive NASA's Game Changing Development program under the Space Technology Mission Directorate or STMD.

The call to solve the lunar dust problem falls under the NASA Artemis program. Named after the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis is the twin sister to Apollo, which is also the name of the space mission that first landed a man on the moon. 

NASA's Artemis Program aims to send the first woman and the next man to land on the moon by 2024. It intends to do so by collaborating with its international partners to make space exploration sustainable. Taking another giant leap for humankind, the results of the next moon landing will serve as references to its next mission--sending astronauts to Mars.

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