NASA is looking for ideas on how to start a lunar economy!


In less than four years, NASA plans to send the first woman and the next man to the moon as part of the Artemis Project. This will be the first manned mission to the lunar surface since Apollo 17, the last mission of the Apollo Program, in 1972. It is also the culmination of decades of planning, research, development and robotic missions that have helped pave the way. And all the while NASA was clear what their overall goal was:

“We are returning to the moon! And this time we will stay! ”

In addition to sending astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024, NASA also plans to create infrastructure by the end of the decade that will allow for a “sustainable lunar exploration” program. To achieve this, NASA and HeroX have launched the NASA Lunar Delivery Challenge, which will award $ 25,000 in prizes to teams who can design systems that can handle payloads that will be delivered to the lunar surface.

Landing on the Moon and establishing a sustained human presence will be one of the most challenging logistical efforts ever attempted. Aside from the heavy launch system and the spacecraft needed to send astronauts there – the Space launch system (SLS) and the Orion MPCV – There is a fundamental need for landing vehicles to provide everything from science instruments and rovers to habitat supplies and modules.

Artist’s impression of surface operations on the Moon. Credit: NASA

NASA has already enlisted multiple aerospace partners through their Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) and Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programs. These programs awarded contracts to commercial developers to create the human landing systems (HLS) needed to transport astronauts and equipment to and from the surface and to deliver cargo.

However, these landers and all cargo being carried to the surface will still have to be unloaded upon arrival, which will require a robust and flexible system that can adapt to the harsh environment. NASA has developed some of its prototypes for this purpose, such as the All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) and the Lunar Surface Manipulation System (LSMS).

However, before investing the considerable resources that are still needed to realize these concepts, they seek input from the wider community. Essentially, they are asking inventors and innovators around the world to consider how to unload cargo from lunar landers and other spacecraft while operating in low-gravity and extreme conditions of the lunar surface.

The three main HLS concepts for NASA’s Artemis project. Credit: NASA

To this end, NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) once again enlisted the help of the HeroX crowdsourcing platform to engage the public and promote innovative ideas. As HeroX CEO Christian Cotichini said in a recent HeroX press release:

“Replicating our daily activities on the Moon continues to be a challenge. Finding ways to do these things in a lunar environment is critical to the success of a sustained human presence on the Moon. Payload unloading is a key part of this overall effort. NASA hopes to once again be able to harness the brilliance of the crowd so that astronauts have access to the equipment and supplies they need. “

Operating on the lunar surface is very dangerous and presents many dangers. To begin with, the Moon is an airless body in which surface temperatures vary considerably, from as low as about -173 ° C (-280 ° F) to a maximum of 117 ° C (243 ° F). Then there is the problem of the lunar regolith, which is incredibly abrasive and sticks to everything. There is also lunar gravity, which is about 16.5% of what we experience on Earth.

The terrain is uneven and littered with obstacles. And as for radiation, the Moon’s surface is exposed to about 1,369 microsieverts (µSv) per day. This is about 2.6 times what astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are exposed to each year and over 200 times what people on Earth are exposed to in a year (6.2 µSv).

The three payload mass categories specified for the NASA Lunar Delivery Challenge. Credit: NTL / HeroX

In addition to being able to handle cargo under these conditions, NASA stressed that the proposals should be flexible enough to handle a variety of payloads and different lander configurations. These will include SpaceX Starship modified design to accommodate lunar landings, Blue Origin’s Integrated Landing Vehicle (ILV) and / or Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS).

NTL specified three categories based on the mass of the payload involved (see graph above). They include <2 metric tons (2.2 US tons), 2-8 tons (2.2 to 8.8 US tons) and 8-12 tons (8.8 to 13.2 US tons), which are divided in eight categories of surface exploration: infrastructure, mobility, energy, housing, communication, science (I), extra vehicular activity (EVA), science (II) and use of in situ resources (ISRU).

As Paul Kessler, NASA Aerospace Vehicle Design and Mission Analyst explained:

“We are looking for general concepts from the public, so this is not a specific challenge for the engineers. We want to hear everyone. We are interested in concepts ranging from simple to complex. We still don’t know what will work best, which is why we are interested in every proposal. We are thrilled to see what people have to offer and to have them contribute to NASA’s ambitious mission. This is the material that makes history “.

For example, a power system in the <2 metric ton range would include something like solar panels, batteries, or fuel cells. In the range of 2-8 metric tons, it would imply a fission surface power system or a large-scale solar array. In terms of infrastructure, a payload of less than 2 metric tons would be a thermal protection or radiation shielding material, while a payload of 8-12 tons would be an additive manufacturing facility (3 prints).

Artistic representation of the SpaceX Starship optimized for lunar missions. Credit: SpaceX

Ideally, NASA hopes for ideas that are completely autonomous and can function for years without human supervision, but are open to semi-autonomous and manually operated concepts. Likewise, they look for ideas that have been tried in other fields or are based on proven technologies. While solutions that can handle one mass class of payload are acceptable, NASA would prefer concepts that can handle multiple classes.

In terms of prizes, the challenge will award up to $ 25,000 to up to 6 teams. The first place winner will win up to $ 10,000, two second place winners will each receive up to $ 4,500 and three third place winners will each receive up to $ 2,000. Additional incentives include the ability to present concepts to NASA engineers, promotion via social media by NASA and HeroX, and the ability to showcase winning solutions to the public.

The challenge was officially launched on October 29, 2020 and will remain open for entries until January 19, 2021. By March 16, the NASA Tournament Lab will announce the winners. Those interested in competing (or looking for more information) are encouraged to go to the challenge page to register.

This is just the latest incentive challenge hosted by NASA and HeroX to promote ideas for the upcoming era of lunar exploration. Some recent examples include the Lunar Loo Challenge, the Watts on the Moon Challenge and Honey, the I Shrunk the NASA Payload Challenge (and the sequel). And who can forget the Space Poop Challenge?

Just a few more examples of how public support and private partnerships are making the new era of space exploration possible!

Further reading: HeroX

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