In 2033, NASA hopes to make the next great leap in space exploration by sending the first crewed mission to Mars. Additional missions will launch every two years, coinciding with when Mars is in “Opposition” (closest to Earth), to establish a research outpost on the Martian surface. Naturally, many challenges need to be dealt with first, such as logistics, radiation protection, and ensuring enough food, water, and air for the astronauts.
This raises another all-important question: what to do with all the waste this generates? To address this, NASA has once again teamed up with the crowdsourcing platform HeroX to foster solutions. Having already launched competitions for new ideas on how to convert space waste into building materials and jettison the unrecyclable waste, HeroX has launched the Trash-to-Gas Challenge – on behalf of the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL).
With a prize purse of $30,000, NASA wants to hear your best ideas on how to maintain trash-to-gas reactors that may be used on long-duration missions.
For years, NASA has been gearing up for its long-awaited return to the Moon with the Artemis Program. Beginning in 2025, this program will send the first astronauts (“the first woman and first person of color”) to the Moon since the end of the Apollo Era. Beyond that, NASA plans to establish the necessary infrastructure to allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration,” such as the Lunar Gateway and the Artemis Base Camp.
Beyond these facilities, several elements are essential to ensuring a long-term human presence on the Moon. These include shelter from the elements, food, air, water, and of course, power. To address this last element, NASA has teamed up with HeroX – the leading crowdsourcing platform – to launch the NASA Watts on the Moon Challenge. This competition is entering Phase II and will award an additional $4.5 million for innovative concepts that supply power to future lunar missions.
For almost sixty years, robotic missions have been exploring the surface of Mars in search of potential evidence of life. More robotic missions will join in this search in the next fifteen years, the first sample return from Mars (courtesy of the Perseverance rover) will arrive here at Earth, and crewed missions will be sent there. Like their predecessors, these missions will rely on mass spectrometry to analyze samples of the Martian sands to look for potential signs of past life.
Given how much data we can expect from these missions, NASA is looking for new methods to analyze geological samples. To this end, NASA has partnered with the global crowdsourcing platform HeroX and the data-science company DrivenData to launch the Mars Spectrometry: Detect Evidence for Past Life challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, this Challenge seeks innovative methods that rely on machine learning to automatically analyze Martian geological samples for potential signs of past life.
Space agencies worldwide have some very ambitious plans that will take place in this decade and the next. For starters, NASA and its agency and commercial partners plan to return to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. Beyond that, they also intend to build the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration,” such as bases on the surface and the Lunar Gateway. Once all of that is in place, NASA will be contemplating sending crewed missions to Mars.
This raises many challenges, including logistics, energy requirements, and the health and safety of astronauts. One crucial concern that is not often thought of by the general public is what to do about the waste generated along the way. To address this, the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) has partnered with HeroX once again to launch the NASA Waste Jettison Mechanism Challenge. With a prize purse of $30,000, NASA is seeking solutions for safely and effectively jettisoning waste that cannot be recycled.
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.
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.
NASA and many other space agencies around the world are eager to get back to Venus. And this time around, they want to send missions that can explore the surface for more than a few hours! To this end, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Glenn Research Center (GRC) are investigating “steampunk” concepts and special electronic systems that will allow rovers to work in Venus’ hellish environment.
In February of 2020, NASA also launched a public competition through HeroX to seak ideas for rovers that would be capable of surviving the extreme conditions on Venus’ surface – the “Exploring Hell Challenge“. After months of consideration for all the worthy submissions they received, NASA recently announced that it in addition to three winning concepts, they have selected two additional finalists and ten honorable mentions!
NASA is busy preparing to land astronauts around the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2024, which will be the first time astronauts have walked on lunar soil since the Apollo Era. By 2028, they plan to establish the Lunar Gateway and Lunar Base Camp, which will facilitate long-term lunar exploration and also missions to Mars. Naturally, a lot of things need to be figured out beforehand, like seeing to the astronauts’ needs.
This includes shelter from the elements, food, and water, but also electricity. To meet that demand, the NASA Centennial Challenges Program has once again launched an incentive challenge through HeroX to inspire solutions. It’s called the Watts on the Moon Challenge, and in exchange for a prize purse of up to $5 million, NASA is looking for solutions on how to provide a reliable supply of energy for lunar missions.
Beginning in 2017, the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association (ESRA) and Spaceport America came together to launch a competition known as the Spaceport America Cup. This annual event sees academics and industry experts from around the world gather at the world’s first purpose-built spaceport to collaborate, compete, and inspire young people to become the next generation of aerospace engineers.
At the heart of the competition is the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), where commercial and student teams build and launch-test rockets of their own design. This year’s competition is expected to be very exciting and will see 1,500 international students from over 70 institutions converge on Southern New Mexico this summer to ply their talents and compete for the prestigious Spaceport America Cup!
You may have thought that whole ‘going to the bathroom in space’ issue had already been resolved, with the International Space Station operating continuously with crew on board since 2000. But as we reported back in December, long-duration, deep-space human missions will create a possible scenario of needing to take care of human waste in a spacesuit longer than just a couple of hours. And so NASA and HeroX issued a Space Poop Challenge, to create an “in-suit waste management system” that can handle six days’ worth of bathroom needs.
HeroX announced this week that five thousand different teams had submitted entries to this challenge, but Air Force officer and flight surgeon Thatcher Cardon won the $15,000 top prize by thinking out of the box, or out of the spacesuit in this case. His concept figures out a way to handle waste by getting it outside of and away from the spacesuit.
For this challenge, NASA wanted to crowdsource the concept of getting away from the MAGs (Maximum Absorbency Garment) – basically adult diapers – currently worn during 7-8 hour-long spacewalks. They need something to handle ‘bathroom needs’ for long duration missions or even an emergency (think Mark Watney) where astronauts might need to spend several days in a spacesuit.
Drawing on his “flight surgeon expertise and borrowing a design from the lingerie industry,” Cardon created the “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System” that places a small airlock opening called the “perineal access port” in the crotch — or “fig leaf area” as Cardon’s press release called it — through which various devices can be inserted to handle liquid or solid waste.
Cardon said the port imitates surgical technologies such as laparoscopy that use small openings to insert surgical instruments and uses devices that are maneuverable with a spacesuit-style gloved hand.
And if you think inflatable space modules are the wave of the future, you’ll love Cardon’s proposal for an inflatable bed pan. The bedpan has an absorbent liner and is can be slide through the port. Once in place inside the spacesuit, it inflates to capture the waste.
Cardon also invented a diaper made of one, long strip. The strip has segments of absorbent gel alternated with plastic segments that layer over the crotch. When one layer is soaked, the astronaut pulls it out through the port and tears it off like tape from a dispenser, exposing a fresh layer of gel.
Cardon said he filed a patent on his devices this week, as many NASA technologies have found widespread use on Earth. Cardon thinks his ideas may have extensive application. For example, the strip diaper might reduce the number of diaper changes needed by bedridden patients.
The $10,000 second-place prize went to three doctors from Houston that called themselves the “Space Poop Unification of Doctors” team. They created a devices that would direct waste through tube that empties into a small storage tank inside the suit.
In third place for a $5,000 prize was the “SWIMSuit—Zero Gravity Underwear.” These underwear disinfect the waste and store it inside the suit.
Cardon said in a press release that his involvement in the Space Poop Challenge was “a ton of fun,” and that he involved his entire family and co-workers, and that his small family practice office “was in an uproar” while he was working on his inventions.
Cardon said he will celebrate his win with a poop themed party for his colleagues, family, base community and church friends, complete with poop emoji cupcakes, special-ordered from the local bakery.
Thanks to Dr. Cardon for sharing his images with Universe Today.