Buckeyes make final four in NASA Moon mission challenge

Posted: July 3, 2023

It’s not uncommon for Ohio State University College of Engineering teams to excel in national competitions, but the latest successful squad is aiming much higher than the others.

Led by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professors Jin Wang and Wu Lu, a team of faculty and graduate students have advanced to the final level of NASA’s Watts on the Moon Challenge, which seeks solutions to transmit and store energy on the lunar surface. Teams from University of California, Santa Barbara, Michigan Technological University and Orbital Mining Corporation round out the final four.

NASA is working to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon and beyond. The next major step in this effort will be Artemis II, the first crewed test flight to the Moon since the Apollo program. Long-term exploratory missions on the Moon will require many technologies, such as lunar habitats, life support systems and rovers – all of which need efficient sources of power.

Watts on the Moon team photo
Team photo taken after successful demo on March 30.

Providing power on the Moon is a complex challenge. Because of the particulars of the Moon’s orbit, the lunar night lasts nearly two weeks, creating long periods of extreme darkness and cold temperatures. For humans to live and work on the Moon for an extended period of time, solutions for storing, distributing and managing energy are essential. Watts on the Moon challenges teams to come up with new technologies to address these areas.

"As we tread new ground in exploration, we'll need to draw on creativity across the nation," said Denise Morris, acting program manager for Centennial Challenges at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "The technologies created through Watts on the Moon are one example, with new perspectives helping us address a crucial technology gap."

Nationwide, 336 teams applied to compete. Last summer, the Ohio State team learned they had qualified for Phase 2, Level 2 of the challenge with six other teams, earning a $200,000 award.

Phase 2, Level 2 work began in August 2022 and tasked teams to further develop key components of solutions designed in the previous challenge level. The four finalists were awarded $400,000 each as they advance to Phase 2, Level 3.

On March 30, the "Electric Moon" Buckeyes team successfully demonstrated the design of a 1.5-kilovolt (kV) and 1.5-kilowatt (kW) modular multilevel converter (MMC)-based isolated DC/DC converter with gallium nitride gate injection transistors. In the morning, a submodule of the MMC was successfully demonstrated in a vacuum chamber at cryogenic temperatures. Later in the afternoon, the team showcased the full converter at Ohio State's Waterman Agricultural and Natural Resources Laboratory. Power was transmitted to the converter from a 1.5-kV source via a 6-kilometer transmission cable, which was arranged into a massive NASA logo. The MMC-based converter stepped down the voltage to 24 volts.

Students helping conduct demonstration
Electric Moon student team members help conduct the March 30 demonstration.

The loads connected to the converter included a resistor bank, a television and a speaker. For the television and speaker, an inverter was used to convert the 24-V DC to 120-V AC. After delivering the power, a portion of President John F. Kennedy's iconic "We choose to go to the moon" speech was played, followed by Ohio State’s Fight Song.

"We have a highly talented and hardworking team comprised of students from diverse backgrounds, led by junior PhD student Yuzhou Yao," said Professor Wang. "Our hope is that one day the technology we have demonstrated will be deployed on the moon, Mars and beyond."

Each team's technology was evaluated by subject matters experts from government and industry, including the Department of Energy. NASA sent observers to each team’s site to validate data and assess performance. This included reviewing the maturity of their respective designs, evaluating whether the prototypes could withstand intensive physical and technological trials, and identifying any remaining risks associated with the hardware. Advancing from Level 2 indicates that the teams are well-prepared to test their prototypes in a simulated lunar environment.

The simulation will occur in the final level, planned for 2024, where each team’s technology will be placed inside a vacuum chamber that mimics the frigid temperature and absence of pressure found at the permanently shadowed regions of the Lunar South Pole. The chamber will serve to test the technology of each team’s design while troubleshooting and mitigating any issues that could occur in possible future use on the Moon. The top two teams will split a prize purse of $1.5 million, bringing the total prizes for all phases of the challenge to $5 million.

The Watts on the Moon Challenge is a NASA Centennial Challenge led by the agency’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. NASA Marshall manages Centennial Challenges, which are part of the agency’s Prizes, Challenges, and Crowdsourcing program in the Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Categories: ResearchAwards
Tag: space