College students are often told to “shoot for the moon,” exploring their interests with ambitious plans and projects. This week, a team of University of Utah engineering students is taking that advice to heart in a more literal way. The team is led by Hong Yong Sohn and his graduate research assistant John Otero in Metallurgical Engineering.

John Otero and Hong Yong Sohn. Banner Photo Credits: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab

NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge is an annual, nation-wide competition that gives college students the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the future of space exploration. In response to a yearly prompt that tasks participants to solve a specific space-based problem, teams of undergraduate and graduate engineering get to work developing creative and innovative concepts. After all project proposals are submitted, five to eight teams are selected to receive a combined total of $1.1 million to further build and develop their system, which they then present to at the BIG Idea Forum in the fall of that year.

The U team is one of seven finalists for the 2023 challenge, titled “Lunar Forge: Producing Metal Products on the Moon.” Onsite and self-sufficient metal production is essential to NASA’s goal of creating a sustained human presence on the lunar surface. Every added ounce of rocket pay-load is expensive and limited, so to transport all the metal needed for lunar infrastructure from earth is out of the question. Yet to create a metal production pipeline on the moon isn’t simply a matter of taking the techniques used on earth, plopping them down on the Sea of Tranquility, and expecting them to work.

Not only does the unique makeup of lunar material need to be taken into account, but the moon’s weaker gravity (one sixth of earth’s), lack of an oxygenated atmosphere, essentially non-existent atmospheric pressure, extreme cold (with nighttime temperatures dipping below -200 degrees Fahrenheit), and constant bombardment of solar winds all pose significant obstacles to earth-centric metallurgy. Additionally, the production methods must be as resource efficient as possible, and transportable.

Read the full story at the College of Engineering