Lunar exploration challenge for mini robot payloads enters a second phase


Before humans return to Earth’s moon, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to send multiple small robots to identify local terrain and resources, build habitats, and conduct other lunar missions. It has partnered with crowdsourcing expert HeroX, which today launched “Honey, I Built the NASA Payload, The Sequel,” an $800,000 continuation of its earlier competition to develop miniature payload prototypes.

HeroX launched the initial “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload” challenge in April, and 14 teams were recognized and rewarded for their innovative approaches to lunar exploration. In the new challenge, on behalf of the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), HeroX said it expects these teams to rely on crowdsourcing to recruit new team members and fill any resource gaps they might have.

“The first phase of this challenge brought creative thinkers and talented engineers into the fold, and now they will take their ideas to the next level,” said Christian Cotichini, CEO of HeroX. “By building working prototypes of their payload designs, these crowdsourced teams are bringing us one step closer to a sustained presence on the moon that will lead to unprecedented
opportunities.”

“We were delighted to find a global response with hundreds of entries and dozens of really good concepts. It was difficult to select the best ones,” said Andrew Shapiro, manager of technology formulation for the Space Technology office at NASA JPL. “This round is a little different in that we are evaluating the best concepts from the last round to see which ones have the best chance of making it to the moon.”

Small payloads needed for lunar scouting

NASA plans to use robotic rovers about the size of iRobot Corp.’s Roomba vacuum cleaners to explore the moon’s surface. They will collect data about potential resources such as water or building materials, environmental factors such as radiation, and suitability for a sustained human presence. This information will be valuable for NASA’s Artemis Program, which plans to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.

Existing payloads are too big, too heavy, and consume too much energy for these small rovers, so new, miniaturized payload designs are needed, said NASA.

“Smaller, more efficient payloads provide us with greater mission flexibility,” Shapiro told The Robot Report. “Ultimately, the information gathered by these miniature rovers and their payloads will inform our near-term mission designers and help us prepare for long-term habitation on the moon.”

HeroX and NASA call for crowdsourced design of miniaturized lunar exploration

NASA is crowdsourcing lunar exploration. Source: HeroX

NASA calls for community participation

NASA has called on the global scientific community to help the 14 teams build prototypes of their miniaturized payloads that it will test and evaluate. Many of the teams are seeking new members with specific capabilities and areas of expertise to deliver working prototypes within the lunar challenge’s timeline of months rather than years.

To get involved, visit the “Meet the Teams” tab of the challenge and see which teams are recruiting new members and what capabilities and areas of expertise those different teams need. New team members must be aged 18 or older and may originate from any country, as long as U.S. federal sanctions do not prohibit participation (some restrictions apply).

Anyone interested in joining the space exploration teams can contact them directly, explained Shapiro.


Eyes on the lunar prize

These expanded teams will have the opportunity to win $800,000 in development funds and prizes and potentially have their lunar payloads deployed, said HeroX. “Honey, I Built the NASA Payload, The Sequel” was always planned, but it waited on NASA funding, Shapiro noted. The competition’s project managers and judges include a wide range of experts, he added.

“We have executives from NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and Science Mission Directorate for the final selection,” Shapiro said. “We are using a wide variety of reviewers including technical experts from academia, NASA and industry.”

The Phase 1 prize purse of $675,000 will be shared among up to four winning teams to help support prototyping efforts. Winners will be selected based on several factors, including quality of project plan, likelihood of success, and scientific impact. Phase 1 preliminary project plans are due on Nov. 10, 2020, and the Phase 1 winners will be announced on Jan. 28, 2021.

At the end of Phase 2 on Feb. 23, 2022, NASA will award a winning team $100,000 and a runner-up team $25,000. Winners will be selected based on testing results and evaluation of the received prototypes. NASA may choose to send one or more winning payloads to the moon. To learn more, visit the lunar challenge page.

Related content: The Robot Report Podcast: Perseverance Rover heading to Mars; re-skilling coal miners; and Jibo returns

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