In less than four years, NASA plans to send the first woman and next man to the moon as part of the Artemis project. 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 paved the way. And all along, it was clear to NASA what their ultimate goal was:
"We're going back to the moon! And this time we're staying!"
NASA should not only send astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2024, but also set up an infrastructure by the end of the decade that enables a program for "sustainable lunar exploration". To achieve this, NASA and HeroX launched the NASA Lunar Delivery Challenge, which sees teams that can develop systems that can handle payloads delivered to the lunar surface receive prizes of $ 25,000.
Landing on the moon and building a sustainable human presence will be one of the most difficult logistical efforts ever undertaken. Aside from the heavy launch system and spaceship needed to send astronauts there – the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion MPCV – there is a critical need for landing vehicles to carry everything from scientific instruments and rovers to supplies and To deliver habitat modules.
Artist's impression of surface operations on the moon. Photo credit: NASA
NASA has already won several partners from the aerospace industry through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) and Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programs. These programs have placed commercial developers in charge of the creation of the Human Landing Systems (HLS) required to move astronauts and equipment to and from the surface and deliver cargo.
However, these landers and all cargo that is being carried to the surface have yet to be unloaded upon arrival. This requires a robust and flexible system that can adapt to the harsh environment. NASA has developed some of its own prototypes for this purpose, such as the All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) and the Lunar Surface Manipulation System (LSMS).
However, before investing the substantial resources that are still needed to implement these concepts, they seek input from the wider community. Essentially, they are asking inventors and innovators from around the world to consider how cargo can be unloaded from lunar landers and other spacecraft while operating under the low gravity and extreme conditions of the lunar surface.
The three most important HLS concepts for NASA's Artemis project. Photo credit: NASA
To this end, NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) has once again enlisted the help of the crowdsourcing platform HeroX to reach the public and promote innovative ideas. As Christian Cotichini, CEO of HeroX, recently said in a HeroX press release:
“Repeating our daily activities on the moon continues to be a challenge. Finding ways to do these things in a lunar environment is critical to the success of an ongoing human presence on the moon. Unloading payloads is a critical part of this overall effort. NASA hopes to reapply the brilliance of the crowd so that astronauts have access to the equipment and supplies they need. "
Operating on the lunar surface is very dangerous and carries many dangers. For starters, the moon is an airless body with surface temperatures varying significantly – from a low of around -173 ° C to a high of 117 ° C (243 ° F). Then there is the problem of the lunar regolite, which is incredibly abrasive and sticks to everything. There is also lunar gravity, which is roughly 16.5% of what we experience on earth.
The terrain is uneven and full of obstacles. And in terms of radiation, the moon's surface is exposed to approximately 1,369 microsieverts (µSv) per day. That is approximately 2.6 times the exposure of astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) per year and 200 times the exposure of humans on Earth in one year (6.2 µSv).
The three payload mass categories specified for the NASA Lunar Delivery Challenge. Image credit: NTL / HeroX
NASA has emphasized that not only can proposals be carried under these conditions, but they should also be flexible enough to handle a wide variety of payloads and different lander configurations. These include SpaceX's spaceship design modified for moon landings, Blue Origin's ILV (Integrated Lander Vehicle), and / or the Dylandics Human Landing System (DHLS).
NTL has specified three categories based on the payload mass involved (see graphic above). These include <2 tons (2.2 US tons), 2-8 tons (2.2 to 8.8 US tons), and 8-12 tons (8.8 to 13.2 US tons) that are in Eight categories for surface exploration are divided: Infrastructure, Mobility, Power, Housing, Communication, Science (I), External Activity (EVA), Science (II) and In-Situ Resource Use (ISRU).
As NASA Aerospace Vehicle Design and Mission Analyst, Paul Kessler stated:
“We are looking for comprehensive concepts for the public, so this is not an engineering-specific challenge. We want to hear from everyone. We are interested in concepts that range from simple to complex. We don't yet know what works best, so we care about any suggestion. We are excited to see what the people have to offer and to see them contribute to NASA's ambitious mission. This is the stuff that makes history. "
For example, a <2 tonne power system would contain something like solar panels, batteries, or fuel cells. In the 2 to 8 ton range, it would be a split-surface power system or a full-size solar panel. In terms of infrastructure, a payload of less than 2 tons would be a thermal or radiation protection material, while a payload of 8 to 12 tons would be an additive manufacturing (3-printing) facility.
Artist's impression of the SpaceX spaceship optimized for lunar missions. Image Credit: SpaceX
Ideally, NASA is hoping for ideas that are completely autonomous and can function for years without human supervision, but are open to semi-autonomous and manually operated concepts. They are also looking for ideas that have proven themselves in other areas or are based on proven technologies. While solutions that can handle one class of payload mass are acceptable, NASA would prefer concepts that can handle multiple classes.
In terms of prizes, the challenge will award a maximum of 6 teams up to $ 25,000. The first place winner will win up to $ 10,000, two second place winners will receive up to $ 4,500 each, and three third place winners will each receive up to $ 2,000. Other incentives include the opportunity to introduce NASA engineers to concepts, advertise NASA and HeroX on social media, and present successful solutions to the public.
The challenge was officially started on October 29, 2020 and can be submitted until January 19, 2021. The NASA Tournament Lab will announce the winners by March 16. Those interested in a competition (or looking for more information) are encouraged to register on the challenges page.
This is just the latest Incentive Challenge hosted by NASA and HeroX to promote ideas for the coming era of lunar exploration. Some recent examples are the Lunar Loo Challenge, the Watts on the Moon Challenge, and the Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload Challenge (and the sequel). And who can forget the Space Poop Challenge?
Just a few more examples of how public support and private partnerships are ushering in the new era of space exploration!
Further reading: HeroX