Environment & Science

Got an experiment for Mars? NASA wants your ideas

An image showing how balance mass is currently used during the cruise and landing phases of Mars missions.
An image showing how balance mass is currently used during the cruise and landing phases of Mars missions.
NASA

Got a burning scientific question about Mars?

NASA is asking the public to help come up with ideas a way to turn ballast needed to balance future landers into a scientific experiment.

Oh, and there's a $20,000 prize for the best idea.

In 2020 NASA is sending another rover to the Red Planet.

During the entry and landing phase for that mission, a total of 300 kilograms of ballast mass will be ejected to help stabilize the craft.

In the past, that material was considered dead weight to be discarded and forgotten, said Lisa May, lead program executive for the Mars Exploration Program.

This time, May said, NASA wants to turn that jetsam into interplanetary citizen science.

"We might be able to expand out science opportunities," May said.

The competition is called the Balance Mass Challenge.

The mass could be turned into impact probes or a micro-drone or even a second, smaller tumbling rover, as the video below explains.

Specifically, the balance masses need to come in the form of two 75 kilogram objects ejected during the cruise phase and six 25 kilogram objects ejected during the entry phase of landing.

NASA's Lisa May said the best ideas need to be as close as possible to the correct mass and volume, technically feasible and should advance what we know about science or technology in some way.

It also must not interfere with the mission of the primary rover.

"It mostly has to be stand alone," she said.

So far NASA's has received about 100 submissions from around the world. 

The deadline is Friday, November 21. The selection team will review the submissions and expect to announce the winner in January.

If you miss this Friday’s deadline, don’t fret.

Lisa May said NASA is considering making these types of challenges a common feature of future missions.

"So stay tuned for other opportunities."