High school students from around the world enter NASA's annual design contest to dream of large-scale orbital space settlements. This year, each station also features a method to capture lucrative asteroids for in-space resource mining. The Grand Prize winners are totally awesome.

Octopus asteroid-grapple on the Greenspace station. Image credit: Popov/Kovachev/Laskov.


This year's Grand Prize winners are Greenspace, designed by a trio of students in Bulgaria, and Vona, created by 6 students in India. The cover presentations are slick, but the full project reports contain a wealth of carefully-researched science for everything from the material properties to biosphere maintenance, social structures to construction challenges.

Greenspace combines torus rings into a cylindrical stack, reducing material costs and isolating sections in case of a breach. It also features an octopus-like grapple to capture asteroids.

Greenspace is a cylindrical stack of living rings, each with futuristic, spacious interiors. Image credit: Popov/Kovachev/Laskov.


Vona is a pair of rings linked by spokes to a central axis. Not an inch of space is wasted in the floorplans, a colour-coded interlocking arrangement reminiscent of Tetris blocks. The station is the home port of a novel craft that can be sent out to retrieve asteroids. The craft captures asteroids with a ring of quantum cascade lasers, mounted on an outer ring of plasma propellers. The overall design is visually similar to a space-gate from Stargate.

Vona is a pair of rings linked to a central axis, with carefully-allocated interior spaces. Asteroids are grappled by a detachable ring of lasers and plasma rockets. Image credit: Aditya/Amareen/Hatinderpal Singh/Hetarth/Karan/Prajjwal.

Several hundred teams submitted concepts; you can read the full list of prize-winners but no other projects are available on-line. The contest is held every year with entries due in early March, so add it to your calendar for next year.

The design contest draws on NASA's own 1970s dreams of space settlements. Although they look like the far-out dreams of science fiction magazine covers, these are all science-based results of a study by Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neil, NASA and Stanford University on developing spaceships big enough to call home.

Unlike the cramped International Space Station, these free-space settlements were designed to hold the population of a California beach town. The objective starts sounding like something out of Elysium: "endowed with weightless recreation, fantastic views, freedom, elbow-room in spades, and great wealth," before meandering down the path of subversive education to encourage students to learn about space stations.


Images credit: NASA Ames Research Center, where you can see the whole gallery. Tip via Geek.com. For more trippy designs, remember that in the 1950s JPL contemplated rocket-propelled boats, and in the 1960s a NASA engineer dreamed of the infamous marshmallow moon-suit.