Credit: Tulane University


A novel approach to creating a reusable solar electric space (SEP) “tug” for toting payloads to the Moon, Mars or elsewhere is dubbed “Sunflower” – a Modular, Hexagonally Symmetric, SEP Cargo Transport Spacecraft.

Sunflower was the winner in NASA’s 2017 BIG Idea Challenge, a concept forged by students from Tulane University.

Credit: NASA

The Sunflower’s structure, power, and navigation systems are distributed across a large surface composed of 12 identical and connected modules. Each module contains an independent set of solar panels, fuel, propulsion, and navigation systems.

To form a 200 kilowatt array, the required surface area of solar panels is roughly 800 meters.

Docking techniques

The modules of the Sunflower are launched in two separate launch vehicles and aggregate in low Earth orbit within 60 days.

Sunflower modules are connected via reversible electro-permanent magnet joints, and a secondary mechanical locking mechanism. This docking technique eliminates the need for a secondary robotic assembly entirely.

Big Idea 2017 winning team from Tulane University are shown holding a model of their winning design.
Top row from left to right are: Professor Timothy Schuler, Otto Lyon and Matthew Gorban.
On the bottom row are Afsheen Sajjadi, Ethan Gasta, John Robertson and Maxwell Woody.
Credit: NASA/Harlen Capen

The power, mass, and thrust of the tug is proportional to the number of modules connected. Additional modules can be added to the Sunflower to achieve more power. Unwanted modules can be jettisoned from the Sunflower and replaced by new modules, allowing for operational refurbishment.

NASA’s Idea Challenge is a university-level design competition sponsored by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, managed by the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), and hosted by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

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