NASA wants your help to safely land future lunar spacecraft in the dark, including permanently shadowed craters that may be icy.
The agency's new Nighttime Precision Landing Challenge No. 1 (opens in new tab) plans to award as many as three prizes of up to $650,000 each. The challenge asks applicants to create sensors able to detect hazards from at least 820 feet (250 meters) high and to process the information as the landing is taking place, allowing for a safe touchdown.
Registration is due May 5 and full applications are due May 19. The agency notes that this technology will assist with its goals of long-term lunar exploration. Its main programs include the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program to put small commercial spacecraft on the moon as soon as this year, and the Artemis program aiming to eventually send humans; the uncrewed Artemis 1 is set to fly around the moon this spring if the schedule holds.
"This [challenge] is an exciting opportunity for industry to offer solutions that address one of NASA's critical goals for space exploration and scientific discovery,” John Kelly, program manager for NASA's Flight Opportunities program at Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, said in an agency statement (opens in new tab) Tuesday (Feb. 15).
The hope is to bring spacecraft as close as possible to predetermined exploration resources, including water ice in permanently shadowed craters. Landing in darkness or shadowed areas, the agency said, is still difficult even in an era where precise landings are more feasible than ever.
Mars missions such as the Perseverance rover that touched down with autonomous landing tech in 2021 are getting better at the task, for example, but that was always in full daylight. NASA is also looking for further advancements in cost-effective, lightweight landing vehicles.
"This challenge is an important step in the search for innovative technologies that will enable robotic and crewed missions to pursue landings in hazardous terrain," Kelly said.
Sensor systems could use radar, lidar, optical or other measurements, as long as these sensors can create three-dimensional maps and detect hazards during landing maneuvers powered by rockets. "Successful sensor systems will drive down the size, mass, power, and cost beyond the current state of the art," NASA added in the same statement.
The challenge is offered through NASA's TechLeap Prize, funded through NASA's Flight Opportunities program. Another program prize, called Autonomous Observation Challenge No. 1 (opens in new tab), is testing payloads on high-altitude balloon flights this summer.