Help Nasa make the most out of Mars missions

The Mars Balance Mass Challenge lets the public help Nasa produce more science from its Mars missions. If you have a winning concept for using stuff Nasa throws away, you can earn $20,000 in awards.

Imagine trying to balance a hockey stick on your fingertip. It’s uneven shape forces you to constantly move your hand, pushing the hockey stick around to keep it in balance.  Nasa’s engineers face a similar challenge when they design the space agency’s spacecraft. The rockets pushing the probe to Mars constantly get pulled off course unless the spacecraft is perfectly balanced.

To stop that from happening the engineers place tungsten ingots, called balance mass, in the spacecraft. It gets complicated during a lander’s entry and descent. In order to fly through the Martian atmosphere at the right angle, the spacecraft's mass must be distributed differently than during the cruise phase. The spacecraft jettisons some of its balance mass before entry to make the change and then jettisons more during the descent phase. The Curiosity rover jettisoned 300 kilograms of balance mass during its entry and descent.

Nasa wants to know whether all of that mass could do something more… scientific. Earlier this week the space agency launched the Mars Balance Mass Challenge to let the public propose solutions to this question. How could a device with the same size and mass produce usable science?

The non-profit Explore Mars recently proposed its own concept for replacing the balance mass on Mars landers. Their ExoLance project would turn the balance mass into giant lawn darts. After crashing into the Martian surface, instruments would measure conditions 1 meter beneath the surface - far deeper than any drill on Nasa’s landers. Explore Mars has an Indiegogo campaign under way to crowdfund the project’s early stages. $50,000 will let them start the design work - qualifying the technology requires another $10,000,000.

Fortunately you don’t need to put that much work into the Mars Balance Mass Challenge. Nasa just wants papers that describe your concept and explain what science it would produce and how practical your approach would be. Winning proposals will get a $20,000 prize.

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