A member of the public with an idea to study the Martian atmosphere and a team with a way to study Martian weather are the winners of NASA’s Mars Balance Mass Challenge.
Ted Ground of Rising Star, Texas, was awarded $20,000 for his idea to study the Martian atmosphere by releasing material that could be seen and studied by other Martian spacecraft in orbit and on the ground.
A team of engineers, Brian Kujawski, Louis Olds, and Leslie Hall, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, received an honorable mention and $5,000 for their idea to study Martian weather by looking at wind patterns near the planet’s surface.
“The 219 submissions from 43 countries to the Mars Balance Mass Challenge show the interest the public has in directly engaging with NASA,” said NASA Chief Technologist David Miller. “And the two winning ideas highlight how effective these activities can be at helping NASA bring innovative ideas into our missions.”
The Mars Balance Mass Challenge, announced in September 2014 at the World Maker Faire in New York City, sought design ideas for small science and technology payloads that could potentially provide dual purpose as ejectable balance masses on spacecraft entering the Martian atmosphere. The payloads would serve two roles: perform scientific or technology functions that help us learn more about the Red Planet, and provide the necessary weight to balance planetary landers.
“We want citizens to join us on the Journey to Mars,” said George Tahu, program executive for Mars Exploration at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Challenges such as this invite innovative design ideas and creative solutions that will support our science and technology planning processes as well as encourage science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.”
Submissions to the challenge ranged from analyzing Martian weather or the Martian surface, to demonstrating new technologies such as 3D printing or parachutes, to pre-positioning supplies for future human missions on the planet’s surface.
Ground’s concept would release trace elements such as barium or strontium during the main spacecraft’s entry and decent into the Martian atmosphere, while other spacecraft in orbit and on the surface of the planet observed the patterns made by the tracer elements in the atmosphere. A similar process is used to study Earth’s atmosphere by sending sounding rockets along a parabolic path anywhere from 30 to 800 miles above the Earth.
The challenge selection team also evaluated a number of concepts using balloon-carried payloads. The best of these was chosen as an honorable mention for its realistic approach to delivering the payloads and for its possible benefit to future human missions to Mars.
All four selectees are new to the world of NASA prizes and challenges, but are now eager to work on upcoming NASA challenges.
Kujawski said, “I now tell everyone that these sorts of challenges are worth giving a shot – you get an opportunity to learn more about something that you’re passionate about, and the satisfaction of coming up with a solution to a tough problem.”
Ground, who was inspired to pursue other NASA challenges, agrees, “I think there are lots of skilled, creative, and educated citizens that could contribute, to help ‘shape’ the contents or overall goals of NASA missions, perhaps more closely than they have in the past.”
The Mars Balance Mass challenge was managed by NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI). CoECI was established in coordination with White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to advance NASA open innovation efforts and extend that expertise to other federal agencies. The challenges are being released on the NASA Innovation Pavilion, one of the CoECI platforms available to NASA team members, through its contract with InnoCentive, Inc.
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