NASA enlists student help with Mars mission design challenge

Are you a college student? Want to be a part of NASA's mission to send astronauts to Mars? Well, you're in luck. The space agency has announced the Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge that aims to get design help from university students. The challenge is to create a solution for slowing NASA's massive payload with inflatable spacecraft heat shields or hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD) technology. While NASA managed to successfully land the Curiosity rover on Mars, a spacecraft with a crew on board would weigh between 15-30 tons -- slightly heavier than the rover's one-ton load. Couple that weight with the planet's thin atmosphere and you can understand why NASA needs to develop a new system to slow the vehicle's approach. What's more, NASA hopes that the HIAD tech could be used on other missions, too.

Interested students have until November 15th to submit initial concepts. If chosen, they'll hand in a detailed paper on their systems next spring, and based on those, four finalists will be selected to present to a panel of judges at Langley. Oh yeah, they'll also be awarded a $6,000 stipend. The winners will be offered paid internships at Langley, where they'll work with the Game Changing Development Program (GCD) folks. And there's a possibility of putting the winning concept through its paces with a test flight.