Innovation

To build a moon base, NASA first has to solve a “big” computer problem

To kickstart a big new era of lunar activity, NASA will have to think small.

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If it wants to support a permanent human settlement on the moon, NASA must solve a curious problem first, and is seeking the public's help, the space agency announced Thursday.

NASA has put out the call to the global scientific and technological community to submit ideas for miniaturized moon payloads. It sounds complicated but essentially it comes down to this:

The problem — NASA wants to collect data from the moon. In other missions, the agency has used vehicles called rovers to wheel around other planets, equipped with machines to take measurements. The upcoming Mars 2020 Rover, for example, will include an X-ray spectrometer to understand the composition of Mars soil, as well as a radar that can penetrate the ground to reveal the underground geology. But NASA wants to send much smaller rovers to the moon. Sending the vehicle to the moon with these traditional bulky, power-sucking data collectors is likely to cause the rover to run out of power, or collapse under the huge amounts of weight. The moon will be littered with broken-down vehicles that failed to collect enough data.

The solution — Crowdsourcing. NASA will call on talented people from all over the world, reaching outside its own team of people, asking them to submit new ideas for data collectors, ones that are small and light enough to fit on the agency's tiny rover. This will ensure the rover can complete its mission, happily whizzing around the moon with data collectors on its back, without running out of power or collapsing in a pile of space rubble.

This new collection of data could help NASA scientists better understand the moon, which in turn could help construct a permanent lunar base for humans as part of the Artemis program.

The challenge, called “Honey I Shrunk the NASA Payload,” named after the 1989 movie, is being organized by the NASA Tournament Lab​ and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The challenge is accepting payload designs from all around the world, and winners will receive prizes of $160,000.

The agency is planning to send tiny rovers to the moon within the next one to four years. These rovers are about the size of a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, which will support even smaller payloads. The data collected by these tiny packages could help support future plans like a lunar base, as well as help better use the moon's resources.

But a Roomba-sized rover poses some unique challenges. It's a far cry from the Apollo mission's Lunar Roving Vehicle, a 10-foot-long vehicle that could carry payloads over 1,000 pounds. Overloading such a tiny machine on a critical mission would be a bad idea, as witnessed by the cats sitting on Roombas that interfere with the cleaning.

NASA tells Inverse that the payloads will need to measure no more than 100 millimeters by 100 millimeters by 50 millimeters, around the size of a bar of soap. They will also need to weigh no more than 0.4 kilograms (0.88 pounds) and be able to withstand external temperatures between minus 120 degrees Celsius (minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit) and 100 degrees (212 degrees Fahrenheit). These are the maximum limits, but smaller and lighter is preferred.

The agency also explained that payloads that could support a future human lunar presence are desirable, as well as those that enable new technologies, advance lunar science, or even pave the way for in-situ resource utilization. The winners, the agency explained in a press release, will be "ones that can demonstrate near-term technical readiness, high impact, and the ability to integrate with micro-rovers."

The rovers on the moon, complete with payload targets.HeroX

"This is an opportunity to contribute ideas to advance our understanding of the moon and its resources, which will be helpful for future missions," Niki Werkheiser, program executive of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program, said in a statement.

The challenge will be hosted on the crowdsourcing platform HeroX, a Los Angeles-based firm founded in 2013. The platform was co-founded by Peter Diamandis, who also founded XPrize. The XPrize Foundation has hosted challenges seeking to create virtual worlds and use A.I. to tackle global problems. HeroX is aimed at opening up the XPrize model so anyone can create their own challenges.

"Solvers around the world are understandably enthusiastic at the opportunity to contribute to a NASA mission,” Christian Cotichini, CEO of HeroX, said in a statement. “The ability of our community to solve such incredibly complex problems is a powerful case study for the capacity of crowdsourcing.

Entry is open to anyone from any country, assuming United States federal sanctions don't restrict entry, and prizes of $160,000 will be awarded across two categories.

The JPL-led challenge is seeking tiny payloads no larger than a bar of soap for a miniaturized Moon rover.NASA

Winning on the small scale will help NASA, and the wider space community, achieve big things on a big scale. The agency's planned "Lunar Gateway," and subsequent resupply missions, could enable all manner of imaginative experiments.

NASA plans to build a spaceship-like Lunar Gateway, complete with deliveries from SpaceX, similar to the International Space Station -- only it will orbit the moon.

The Lunar Gateway space station will be used to support a manned mission to the moon in 2024, including the first woman to step on the moon. This mission will lead to the Artemis Base Camp "sustained presence" on the South Pole, which will then support more ambitious missions like a manned Mars trip.

All this could lead to a mass expansion of humanity's presence in space. Morgan Stanley projected in July 2019 that the global space industry's revenue could jump from $350 billion today to over $1 trillion by 2040. Perhaps it's little wonder that the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin are so keen to help build the infrastructure to enable this expansion.

The moon could play a role in this by opening up to widespread scientific experiments, similar to the International Space Station. The ISS has supported student and commercial projects like Nickelodeon slime experiments and space broccoli, through a series of resupply missions that send up and bring back projects in capsules. The most recent of these, SpaceX's CRS-20 mission, included Adidas Boost sneakers to test their performance in microgravity.

But not everyone is on board with the idea. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society who convinced Elon Musk to set his sights on Mars, dismissed it in a May 2017 article as "NASA's worst plan yet" that will "accomplish nothing." Zubrin argued that the Gateway would add no value compared to the International Space Station and a lunar base, making it an irrational goal.

NASA disagrees, and statements suggest the Gateway is intended to lay the foundations for much more ambitious missions.

“The Gateway will give us a strategic presence in cislunar space. It will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the Moon and its resources,” William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA's Washington headquarters, said in a February 2018 statement. “We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”

The Artemis Base Camp could help support those Mars missions. The camp would initially see astronauts stay for between one to two months, hosting four crew members. Support infrastructure like communications, power and waste disposal would be added over time. One potential site is near Shackleton Crater, pictured below with the Capital Beltway for scale:

The Shackleton Crater could be one location.NASA

NASA is not the only one that wants to build a moon base. China and Europe have both expressed interest in building a lunar base.

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, declared in March 2019 that humans "should" build a "permanently occupied" human base on the moon. SpaceX is currently developing the fully-reusable Starship, which can refuel using resources available in space and either continue its journey or return home. Musk is famous for his plans to eventually build a city on Mars by 2050.

While NASA wants to send soap-sized science projects to the moon, humanity's future presence in space could cover many more places.

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