NASA reveals first Mars Balance Mass Challenge winners

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NASA has announced the winners of its first Mars Balance Mass Challenge under which the space agency, in September 2014, invited design ideas for small science and technology payloads that could provide dual purpose as ejectable balance masses on spacecraft entering the Martian atmosphere.

Texas-based Ted Ground 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.

Ground’s concept involves releasing 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 team of engineers from Grand Rapids, Michigan, received an honourable 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. “The two winning ideas highlight how effective these activities can be at helping NASA bring innovative ideas into our missions.”

NASA’s idea was to have dual roles for the payloads – 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, programme executive for Mars Exploration at NASA headquarters in Washington, DC.

Submissions to the challenge ranged from analysing 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.