NASA wants student help to land astronauts on Mars

NASA is hoping for a shot of student inspiration to figure out how to safely land crewed spacecraft on Mars, offering paid internships as a reward for ideas. The space agency hopes to take human astronauts to the red planet in the 2030s, but among the technical issues the project faces is completing the very final step of the journey: touchdown.

Key to the challenge is dealing with Mars' very thin atmosphere. That doesn't present much in the way of helpful drag to slow down the landing of a space craft, forcing NASA to think outside the usual parachute box it would deploy for an Earth landing.

So far, the heaviest craft to reach Mars and land safely on the surface is the Curiosity rover, which followed a complex, multi-stage process including a flying crane to go from orbit to the planet's surface.

The rover, though, was around a ton: a crewed spacecraft would be between 15x and 30x the weight, NASA points out.

Right now, the most likely solution is some sort of inflatable parachute, dubbed an inflatable spacecraft heat shield or hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator (HIAD). That would expand on descent to slow the lander, with predictions that current technology might support a roughly 22 ton payload.

Now, NASA is looking to students and graduates to pick up the baton. The Game Changing Development Program (GCD) will be co-managed by NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate and the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), and invites new ideas around inflatable shields or HIADs.

That might include shields that physically morph during landing, or that use pneumatics to change the HIAD structure.

Teams have until November 15 to submit proposals, with the GCD selecting some to develop full technical papers for the spring of 2016. Up four of those will go on to present their concepts to a panel made up of NASA judges, and the winning teams will get paid internships with the GCD in Langley where they'll be able to help develop actual technology that might one day head out to Mars.