NASA is Looking for Ideas on How to Jump-Start a Lunar Economy!

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

“We’re going back to the Moon! And this time, we’re going to stay!”

In addition to sending astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024, NASA also plans to establish 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 capable of handling payloads that will be delivered to the lunar surface.

Landing on the Moon and establishing a sustained human presence there will be one of the most challenging logistical efforts ever attempted. Aside from the heavy-launch system and spacecraft needed to send astronauts there – the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion MPCV – there’s a critical need for landing vehicles to deliver everything from scientific instruments and rovers to supplies and habitat modules.

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

Already, NASA has enlisted multiple aerospace industry partners through their Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) and Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programs. These programs have awarded contracts to commercial developers to create the Human Landing Systems (HLS) needed to ferry astronauts and equipment to and from the surface and to deliver cargo.

However, these landers and all the cargo that’s transported to the surface will still need to be unloaded when they arrive, which will require a robust and flexible system that can adapt to the harsh environment. NASA has developed some of its own prototypes for such a purpose, like the All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) and the Lunar Surface Manipulation System (LSMS).

However, before they invest the considerable resources that are still needed to realize these concepts, they are seeking input from the larger community. Essentially, they are asking inventors and innovators from all around the world to consider how cargo can be unloaded from lunar landers and other spacecraft while operating in the low gravity and extreme conditions of the lunar surface.

The three top HLS concepts for NASA’s Project Artemis. Credit: NASA

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

“Replicating our everyday activities on the Moon continues to be a challenge. Finding ways to do these things in a lunar environment is crucial to the success of a sustained human presence on the Moon. The unloading of payloads is a critical part of that overall effort. NASA hopes it can once again leverage 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 hazards. For starters, the Moon is an airless body where surface temperatures vary considerably – ranging from a low of about -173 °C (-280 °F) to a high of 117 °C (243 °F). Then there’s the problem of lunar regolith, which is incredibly abrasive and sticks to everything. There’s also lunar gravity, which is roughly 16.5% of what we experience on Earth.

The terrain is uneven and littered with obstacles. And as for the radiation, the surface of the Moon is exposed to about 1,369 microsieverts (µSv) per day. That’s about 2.6 times what astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are exposed to annually, 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 has stressed that proposals should be flexible enough to handle a variety of payloads and different lander configurations. These will include SpaceX’s Starship design that is modified to accommodate lunar landings, Blue Origin’s Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV), and/or the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS).

NTL has specified three categories based on the payload mass involved (see graphic above). They include <2 metric tons (2.2 US tons), 2-8 metric tons (2.2 to 8.8 US tons), and 8-12 metric tons (8.8 to 13.2 US tons), which are subdivided by eight surface exploration categories – infrastructure, mobility, power, habitation, communication, science (I), extra-vehicular activity (EVA), science (II), and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).

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

“We are looking for broad concepts from the public, so this is not an engineer-specific challenge. We want to hear from everyone. We are interested in concepts that range from simple to complex. We don’t yet know what will work best, and that’s why we’re interested in every proposal. We are excited to see what people have to offer and to have them contribute to NASA’s ambitious mission. This is the stuff 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 2-8 metric ton range, it would involve a fission surface power system or a full-scale solar array. In terms of infrastructure, a less than 2 metric ton payload would be thermal protection or radiation shielding material, while an 8-12 metric ton payload would be an additive manufacturing (3-printing) plant.

Artist’s impression of the SpaceX Starship optimized for lunar missions. Credit: SpaceX

Ideally, NASA is hoping for ideas that are fully autonomous and can operate for years without human oversight but is open to semi-autonomous and manually-operated concepts. Similarly, they are looking for ideas that have been proven in other fields or are based on proven technologies. While solutions that can handle one class of payload mass are acceptable, NASA would prefer concepts that can handle multiple classes.

In terms of prizes, the challenge will award up to $25,000 to a maximum of 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 receive up to $2,000 each. Additional incentives include the chance to present concepts to NASA engineers, promotion via social media by NASA and HeroX, and a chance to showcase winning solutions to the public.

The challenge officially launched on October 29th, 2020, and will remain open for submissions until January 19th, 2021. By March 16th, the NASA Tournament Lab will announce the winners. Those who are interested in competing (or are 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 for the purpose of fostering ideas for the coming era of lunar exploration. Some recent examples include the Lunar Loo Challenge, the Watts on the Moon Challenge, and the Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload challenge (and the sequel). And who can forget the Space Poop Challenge?

Just some more examples of how public support and private partnerships are making the new era of space exploration happen!

Further Reading: HeroX