If you have a genius idea for a tiny exploratory robot, then NASA wants to hear from you. The space agency is calling on the public to submit their designs for miniature rovers which could be used to explore the moon as part of the Artemis project or even help establish a long-term moon base in the “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload” challenge.
“As human space exploration evolves toward a permanent presence on the lunar surface, In situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) will become increasingly important,” the challenge website states. “Resupply missions are very expensive. We need to develop practical and affordable ways to identify and use lunar resources, so that our astronaut crews can become more independent of Earth.”
One key part of NASA’s lunar strategy is to identify resources on the moon which astronauts can make use of: “Future astronauts have to be able to locate and collect lunar resources and then transform them into the essentials for life: breathable air, water for drinking and food production, building materials for shelter, rocket propellants, and more. Our mission capabilities will rapidly increase when useful products can be created from in-situ resources.”
The JPL-led challenge is seeking tiny payloads no larger than a bar of soap for a miniaturized Moon rover. NASA
That’s where rovers come in. NASA is already working on a full-sized rover, VIPER, which will search for water on the moon. However, a full-sized rover is large and heavy, requiring a lot of power to operate. Smaller rovers, around the size of a bar of soap, would be able to perform the same mapping and exploration functions but with much lower requirements.
“Smaller payloads are game changing,” Sabah Bux, a technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, said in a statement. “They will allow us to develop technologies to do more prospecting and science on smaller, more mobile platforms.”
As well as tiny rovers for finding resources, NASA is also interested in small rovers for performing science operations or which could help support a sustained human presence on the moon.
The challenge is to design a rover with the maximum external dimensions of 100mm x 100mm x 50mm. Following the design phase, there will be new challenges for the prototyping, testing, and creation of these rovers. For the first design round, there is a total of $160,000 in prize money to be split across two categories: Rovers for locating lunar resources, and rovers for exploring the lunar environment.
Find out more about the challenge on the HeroX website.