Texas amateur wins $20,000 Nasa prize for Mars exploration ideas

Bits of Curiosity fell off as it entered the Martian atmosphere… but Nasa did it on purpose. Now four amateurs have won $25,000 from the space agency for proposing ways to make those falling pieces do science.

A spacecraft ejects as much as 300 kilograms of tungsten bars during it’s entry, descent, and landing (EDL) on another planet. Ejecting the ballast changes the spacecraft’s center of mass, letting it adjust to the needs of the different EDL phases. It’s important, but it’s also a lost opportunity. Nasa spends a lot of money to send those tungsten bars across the Solar System, but the lumps of metal contribute nothing to the spacecraft’s scientific mission.

Rather than asking a bunch of professors and astronauts, Nasa turned to the public when it launched the Mars Balance Mass Challenge last September. The space agency asked people to submit concepts for conducting science with up to 150 kilograms of ejected mass. Anyone could register with the Innocentive crowdsourcing service to submit their ideas.

Nasa received 219 proposals from around the world. Some focused on scientific research such as analyzing conditions in the red planet’s atmosphere and surface. Others focused on exploration technologies such as releasing balloon-borne instruments or using 3D printing technology.

This is just one of several Nasa contests that let the public take part in its missions. The Nasa Solve and Centennial Challenge sites provide more information about the following projects:

  • Sample Return Robot - A public contest to demonstrate rover technology for future sample return missions. The rover must locate and retrieve geologic samples from a simulated Martian terrain without any human intervention. Nasa will award up to $1.5 million to teams that meet the contest’s milestones.
  • Mars Ascent Vehicle - Open to high school and undergraduate students participating in Nasa’s Student Launch rocketry program, the MAV Challenge looks at another aspect of sample return missions - getting the samples into space. Contestant must design robots that will automatically load samples into a high performance rocket, launch it thousands of feet in the air, and deploy a recovery capsule. Nasa will award $50,000 in prize money to the top three teams.
  • Human Exploration Rover Challenge -  An annual contest for high school and undergraduate makers. They must design and ride a human-powered rover over a simulated Martian landscape.
  • CubeQuest - Nasa has set aside space on its upcoming mission to test the Orion capsule. Rather than sending astronauts on a loop around the Moon, Nasa will send CubeSats to test the use of small satellites in deep space. Teams can win up to $5 million in prizes.

Nasa just released a Request For Information to get the public’s feedback on a future challenge. The Sample Return Robot and Mars Ascent Vehicle challenges address the first two stages of a sample return mission. The Space Race Challenge will address the last stage of a sample return mission: capturing the sample in orbit.

Ted Grount won the $20,000 grand prize for the Mars Balance Mass Challenge. The Texan technical manager was never involved in the space program - he designs commercial water treatment systems. Nasa picked his proposal to release trace elements into the Martian atmosphere as the spacecraft descends. Orbiting satellites would track those elements as the Martian winds carried them around the planet. “There are lots of skilled, creative, and educated citizens that could contribute… more closely than they have in the past,” Grount said in Nasa’s press release

Nasa’s Chief Technologist, David Miller, said that the level of participation shows “the interest the public has in directly engaging with Nasa. And the two winning ideas highlight how effective these activities can be at helping NASA bring innovative ideas into our missions.”