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NASA sets water challenge to aid crewed missions to the moon and Mars

Humans are returning to the moon in the near future, and we could be on our way to Mars before too long, as well.

But for missions aimed at creating bases where we can stay for extended periods of time, we need a way to harvest any available water for drinking, growing plants, or making rocket fuel.

With this in mind, NASA is launching a new challenge for university-level engineering students to design and build hardware capable of identifying, mapping, and drilling through various subsurface layers before extracting water from a block of ice in a simulated testbed.

NASA says there could be “hundreds of millions of tons of ice” in the shadows of our moon’s South Pole, though noted that it will likely need plenty of processing before it can be used.

“The water we’ll find when the next men and first women explore the lunar surface for the Artemis program is liable to be mixed with contaminants that need to be removed before drinking, or use as fuel,” Douglas Terrier, NASA chief technologist, said on the space agency’s website. “Learning how to safely and efficiently prospect for and harvest water is key for sustainable human exploration — not only on the moon, but also on Mars and at other far reaches of our solar system.”

Student teams keen to get involved need to submit a project plan showing their proposed concept design and operations by November 24, 2020. The organizers will then hand up to 10 teams a $10,000 development stipend to go toward building and testing their technology in the first half of 2021. They’ll then show off their designs during a three-day contest at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in June. The best teams will be invited to present their designs at a future NASA-chosen event.

NASA has been inviting engineering students to take part in similar projects annually since 2017 as it prepares for crewed missions to the moon, Mars, and possibly beyond.

Dr. Prasun Desai, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the Artemis program is “inspiring the brightest minds in academia,” adding, “It is important for us to provide those talented students with unique, hands-on opportunities to contribute to the future of human space exploration. We look forward to seeing their technological breakthroughs as they progress through the competition.”

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