NASA Announces the Winners of its Second Payload Challenge!

Lunar exploration has advanced considerably in the last two decades, with more countries sending robotic orbiters, landers, and rovers to the surface than ever before. These missions have taught us much about the Moon’s geological evolution, composition, environment, and resources. In a few years, this information will prove vital as NASA sends the first astronauts to the Moon since the Apollo Era (as part of the Artemis Program). They will be followed by many more crewed missions, which will eventually lead to the creation of lunar bases.

Alas, there is still a lot that we still need to know before regular, long-duration missions to the Moon can be conducted. To help fill in the gaps in our knowledge, HeroX launched the “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload, the Sequel” Challenge in September 2020. With up to $800,000 in prizes, this competition sought innovative miniature payload designs that could collect information about the lunar environment and its potential resources. The competition’s winners were announced today during the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium Spring meeting.

This meeting aims to share information relevant to NASA’s long-term plans and investments for building a sustained presence on the lunar surface. The two-day event kicked off at 11:00 am EDT (08:30 am PDT) at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) with a keynote address by NASA Associate Administrator Robert D. Cabana. This was followed by the “NASA Space Tech Update” by NASA Associate Administrator Jim Reuter, which included the announcement of the Challenge winners.

This challenge was launched on the heels of the “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload Challenge,” which began on April 9th, 2020, and concluded on July 14th, 2020. A total of $160,000 was awarded to fourteen teams for their innovative approaches to miniature payload development. These teams were invited to participate in the sequel challenge, of which four finalist teams were selected. These teams recruited new additional team members to enhance their designs and fill any resource gaps they might have.

For the next step in the challenge, which commenced on Sept. 28th, 2020, two of these expanded teams were awarded up to $225,000 to develop their proposals into functioning, flight-ready payloads. A third team was awarded $65,000 to develop their proposal further, and as of 2022, all three completed their development and testing of their hardware. These teams will now receive $100,000, $25,000, and $15,000, respectively, for their winning designs and are being evaluated by NASA for future missions.

According to NASA Associate Administrator Reuter, the top three winners (in order) were:

1st Place: Sun Slicer Spectrometer

Team Sun Slicer is a collection of space science and space science enthusiasts led by Phillip Jobson, a HeroX veteran whose previous competitions include the original Payload Challenge and the Spaceport America Cup 2021 Challenge. He was joined by Garrett Jernigan, John Doty, and Brian Silverman (three MIT alumni who have co-developed CubeSats for educational purposes), Vadim Gerasimov – a Google software engineer co-developer of the original TETRIS Game – and others.

Their concept consists of a miniature, low-power X-ray spectrometer with custom packaging and a thermal design to adapt it to the harsh lunar environment. A key feature is the custom lunar dust mitigation concept that relies on a rotary shutter/filter wheel and wiper system driven by an extremely compact motor and gears. This concept has many potential applications for Artemis, such as prospecting for rock-forming elements, measuring solar flares, and monitoring background X-ray radiation.

NASA is seeking proposals for miniaturized payloads that will allow for lunar exploration. Credit: HeroX

This spectrometer is flight-ready and has a technological readiness level rating of seven (TRL7), meaning it is ready for demonstration in a space environment.

2nd Place: Puli Lunar Water Snooper

This winning entry was provided by Puli Space Technologies, a space technology company based in Budapest, Hungary. The Puli Lunar Water Snooper concept is a low-cost, simple, and extremely lightweight neutron spectrometer that detects hydrogen atoms in lunar regolith. As these atoms are caused by interactions between regolith and cosmic rays, hydrogen can be detected several meters below the surface and could indicate the presence of water and other hydrogen-bearing volatiles.

3rd Place: µRAD

The Micro-Scale Lunar Radiation Detector (µRAD) was proposed by Christian Haughwout and Thomas (Joey) Murphy – two MIT graduate students currently pursuing Ph.D. degrees in space systems engineering. Their concept is a miniaturized radiation detector that will help characterize the dangers of radiation exposure and absorption in the lunar environment. This is vital, considering that radiation is one of the greatest threats to long-duration missions and human habitation in space.

According to the most recent data, lunar astronauts will be exposed to 60 microsieverts (mSv) an hour, roughly 200 times what people on Earth are exposed to (on average). As such, detailed surveys are required to mitigate the risks of radiation exposure around the southern polar region (the proposed site of future lunar bases). Unfortunately, existing devices capable of making those measurements are too large and expensive for widespread deployment on Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) and landers.

Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the Moon. Credits: NASA

To address this, Haughwout and Murphy developed a miniaturized radiation measuring instrument for their µRAD concept. It has many of the same features as the radiation assessment detector (RAD) on the Curiosity rover but with the size, weight, and power (SWap) profile of a smaller exploration vehicle. These vehicles could be dispatched to the lunar surface in droves to map out the environment and maybe even provide radiation monitoring for excursions on the lunar surface in the near future.

If all goes according to plan, NASA will launch the Artemis III mission, which will land two astronauts on the surface of the Moon for the first time in over fifty years. A decade from now, NASA, the ESA, China, and Russia all hope to have established permanent lunar outposts, such as the International Moon Village, the Artemis Base Camp, the Lunar Gateway, and the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). Accomplishing this monumental task requires inter-agency and public-private partnerships, but also the power of the crowd to foster innovative solutions.

For more information, check out the HeroX Challenge page.