NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration,—would like to send astronauts to Mars, and it needs your help to do so. Especially if you have a novel solution to the problem of recycling waste in space.
NASA’s tournament lab and HeroX’s newly launched “Waste to Base” challenge is looking for suggestions on how to “recycle, repurpose, or reprocess” waste material—specifically trash, fecal waste, foam packaging material, and carbon dioxide—during a two to three year mission to the Red Planet. Ideally, space-trash will be converted into base material like propellant or feedstock for 3D printing.
“The challenge is looking for your ideas for how to convert different waste streams into propellant, and into useful materials, that can then be made into needed things and cycled through multiple times. While a perfectly efficient cycle is unlikely, ideal solutions will result in little to no waste,” NASA/SpaceX says on the challenge website.
How to enter NASA and SpaceX’s Waste to Base challenge
Entering the challenge is easy. Just head to the Waste to Base Materials Challenge: Sustainable Reprocessing in Space page, log in, and show those rocket scientists who’s a real genius. The challenge is open to any individual or team in the world, as long as everyone involved is over 18 and lives in a jurisdiction that is not under United States federal sanctions.
This isn’t an anything-goes kind of project. NASA is looking for (vaguely) practical ideas, so make sure your blue space-recycling-bin design is no bigger than a refrigerator and can work in zero gravity environments. Check out the guidelines page for more details and for a fascinating look at the problems waste creates during a long space mission.
What do I get out of helping some astronauts recycle their space-waste?
If potentially helping Humanity’s first interplanetary mission deal with astronauts’ troublesome poo and pee in a responsible manner isn’t enough incentive, NASA and SpaceX are giving out $24,000 in prize money, with individual prizes up to $1,000. At least two and up to 14 prizes will be awarded in five categories, and the winning ideas will potentially show up in a NASA whitepaper that will act as a “roadmap for future technology development work.”
When are we sending people to Mars anyway?
We are sending people to Mars when we are damn good and ready. NASA has no set date for a Mars mission—it’s more of a hope at this point—but they are running a Mars simulation on Earth (and looking for qualified people to join it), and speculate we might be ready to rock by 2037.
The space agency is working on sending people back to the moon first. That mission, Project Artemis, is more concrete, and aims to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon in 2025. Don’t be surprised if this date gets pushed—it’s hard to send people to the moon. The first launch of an unmanned Artemis vehicle could happen this summer, though.