NASA and HeroX Want to Convert Waste in Space and Monitor Air-Quality Here on Earth

In the coming years, NASA will be making the long-awaited return to the Moon, where they will be joined by multiple space agencies and commercial partners. This will be followed by NASA and China sending the first crewed missions to Mars and other locations in deep space in the next decade. This presents numerous challenges, not the least of which involves providing for astronauts’ basic needs while in flight. In keeping with Dr. Sian Proctor’s motto, “solving for space solves for Earth,” dedicated to addressing air-quality problems and Climate Change here at home.

To help NASA address these problems, the leading crowdsourcing platform HeroX has launched two new incentive challenges. First, there’s the “Waste to Base Materials Challenge: Sustainable Reprocessing in Space,” which seeks innovative solutions for what to do about all the waste that’s generated during long-duration spaceflights. (human and otherwise). Second, there’s the “NASA Air-athon Challenge,” which is looking to foster high-resolution air quality information to improve public health and safety.

The Challenge of Sustainability

According to multiple mission proposals (including NASA’s Journey to Mars and Moon to Mars), launch windows to Mars occur when Earth and Mars are closest to each other in their orbits (every 26 months). A round trip will take anywhere from a year to 18 months during these periods, which works out to a total mission duration of two to three years. Aside from food, water, and air, there’s the matter of all the waste that a long-duration mission will generate (human and otherwise).

Seeks Novel Ways to Sustainably Deal with Waste on Spaceship for Future Human Missions; Top Ideas to Share $24K Prize Purse. Credit: HeroX

Given the logistics and sheer cost of sending resupply missions to locations in deep space, missions to Mars will need to be as self-sufficient as possible. While solutions exist for providing a steady (and even regenerative) supply of food, water, and air, waste is a cumulative problem with no sustainable solutions. The Waste to Base Materials Challenge is looking for ways to convert human waste, packaging, and assorted trash into things astronauts can use for the mission.

These include, but are not restricted to, propellant, feedstock for 3D printing, and other useful materials that can be cycled through multiple times. With a prize purse of $24,000, HeroX and the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) are looking for proposals for waste-management systems that will result in little to no waste. In the long-term, NASA envisions the possibility of integrating all of the proposed processes into a single robust ecosystem that allows spacecraft to launch from Earth with a minimal amount of supplies (thereby minimizing launch mass).

“This is exactly what our crowd is poised to do: solve intractable problems with an eye for efficiency and sustainability,” said HeroX President & CEO Kal K. Sahota. “I am eager to see the submissions.” All submissions will be evaluated based on four specific categories:

  • Trash
  • Fecal waste
  • Foam packaging material
  • Carbon dioxide processing

Multiple winners will be selected for each category, each of which will be awarded a prize of $1,000. The judges will also recognize four ideas as “best in class,” which will also be awarded a prize of $1000. The prize is open to anyone 18 or older, participating as individuals or teams, and from any country, provided U.S. federal sanctions do not prevent competition (some additional restrictions may apply).

For more information or to register for the challenge, check out the Challenge Page at HeroX.

Challenge Seeks Novel Ways to Create Accurate, High-Resolution Air Quality Estimates; Top Ideas to Share $50K Prize Purse. Credit: HeroX

Monitoring Air Quality

In another important incentive competition, NASA is seeking solutions for air-quality monitoring, which is of vital importance to respiratory health today. Over the past century, urban growth, industrialization, and the growing consumption of fossil fuels have led to growing concerns about air pollution and climate change. In addition to elevated levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), there’s also the danger posed by elevated levels of surface-level nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5).

Whereas NO2 lasts less than a day in the atmosphere, it can lead to respiratory issues, asthma problems, and the formation of other harmful pollutants, such as ozone (O3) and particulate matter. PM2.5 refers to particulate matter that’s less than 2.5 micrometers in size, which can last for days to weeks in the atmosphere and can penetrate deep into human lungs, causing respiratory disease, lung cancer, and other major health concerns.

Currently, there’s no single system in place that provides the public with on-demand, high-resolution data on surface-level air pollutants. Because of this, millions of people worldwide are unable to make informed decisions and control their exposure to airborne pollutants that could affect their health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.2 million deaths a year occur due to exposure to outdoor air pollution, making it the top environmental risk factor for deaths worldwide and the sixth-leading risk factor overall.

While many cities employ ground monitors to monitor and provide real-time data on air quality, they are expensive and suffer have large gaps in coverage. For this reason, NASA, HeroX, and data-science competition platform DrivenData have launched the NASA Air-athon Challenge. As DrivenData co-founder and head of Business Development Greg Lipstein said in the competition press release:

“This is a difficult problem where better data tools can provide timely information to millions of people to help them protect their health. The challenge will test solutions from a global community of experts, with the best approaches automatically rising to the top of the leaderboard.”

Human activity is a major cause of air pollution, much of which results from industrial processes. Credit:

With a total prize purse of $50,000, this challenge aims to develop solutions that can use widely available, low-cost sensor data and satellite imagery to provide local, daily air quality information to hundreds of thousands of people. These systems will need to generate daily estimates of NO2 and PM2.5 across 5 km (3 mi) grids in three major urban areas the Los Angeles South Coast Air Basin, U.S.; Delhi, India; and Taipei, Taiwan.

“This effort prioritizes the health of entire communities,” added HeroX CEO Kal K. Sahota. “I am eager to see the innovative ways the crowd can improve air quality data collection and enhance public health.”

These two challenges, which were launched simultaneously today, demonstrate how the challenges of space exploration and life on Earth are intrinsically linked. By developing sustainability solutions for long-duration missions to locations in deep space, researchers are also producing applications for better living here at home. By studying and characterizing other planetary environments in the hopes of understanding them better (and finding life), we are learning more about what makes Earth so special.

As Dr. Sian Proctor would say, “Solving for space solves for Earth.” If humanity’s future lies in space, we need the kind of understanding and solutions that will allow for sustainable living, regardless of where that is!

Further Reading: HeroX, DrivenData

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is the Curator of Universe Today's Guide to Space. He is also a freelance writer, a science fiction author and a Taekwon-Do instructor. He lives with his family on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia.

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