Universities to play critical role for NASA to achieve its 2024 moon return

NASA is working with nine universities to help with its mission to the moon in 2024.

NASA has ambitious plans to return to the moon in 2024 under its Artemis programme. But to do so, it needs the right partnerships and collaborations to make that deadline a reality. 

With universities serving as a petri dish of talent, NASA announced that it is collaborating with nine American universities to advance small spacecraft technologies that will help pave the way for human and robotic lunar exploration.

NASA explained that this technology will enable “simpler, quicker optical communications target acquisition by receiving signals from more widely separated locations than other fixed, body-mounted optical systems”. 

The technology will enable small spacecraft to relay data between other assets placed across the lunar surface, other spacecraft in different lunar orbits, and to Earth, simultaneously and more efficiently, said NASA.

Going to the moon to prepare for Mars

NASA employee holds the official Artemis mission patch at NASA Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio on March 14, 2020. – NASA held a special event for media and VIP’s to showcase the new Orion Spacecraft. Source: Brad Lee/AFP

In a statement, the US agency said small spacecraft, or “SmallSats,” will “help blaze the trail” for their voyage to the moon.

NASA explained that currently, small spacecraft – ranging in size anywhere between a shoebox up to that of a refrigerator – mainly operate in low-Earth orbit. But technology advancements, through these collaborative partnerships, can help fully realise the potential of SmallSats as they extend their capabilities to complex lunar exploration missions.

“As we prepare for the next robotic and crewed missions to the moon, we expect small spacecraft to help forge the path ahead by scouting terrain, prospecting for resources and establishing communications and navigation capabilities in cislunar space,” said Christopher Baker, programme executive for the Small Spacecraft Technology programme. 

“Taking advantage of their small size and shorter development timelines, small spacecraft are increasingly capable as both rapid precursor missions and as cost-effective, in-space infrastructure.”

NASA said in the future, SmallSats could provide exploration missions with communications relays or navigation services at the moon, similar to how we use communications satellites and GPS around Earth. 

This capability could play an important role in helping the agency build a sustainable presence on the moon.


NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology programme selected the university teams for its SmallSat Technology Partnerships initiative to mature new systems and capabilities. 

Under the Artemis programme, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024 using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before, it said on its website. Their findings here will be used for the “next giant leap” – sending astronauts to Mars.

The university teams and partner NASA centers include: 

  • Arizona State University
  • San Diego State University
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of Colorado, University of Texas, Austin
  • University of California, Irvine
  • California Polytechnic State University
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Utah State University 
  • California State University, Los Angeles

Each university partnership will vary by topic. 

For instance, Arizona State University’s collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California will look into “a novel deployable wide-aperture optical communications receiver”.