“Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload”: A Call for Engineers to Help Send Mini Rovers to the Moon

April 13, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

NASA is headed to the moon again, and this time, they're reaching out to the public engineering community for help.

After the absence of half a century, NASA is returning to the moon, and this time it’s going to stay. NASA’s new Artemis Project aims to locate lunar resources and enable permanent lunar crews to live more independently of resupply from Earth. Aside from using water for drinking, these crews will need the hydrogen for fuel and the oxygen for breathing. Rovers and astronauts will also seek out building materials for shelter.


NASA seeks payloads for its miniature lunar rovers

NASA seeks payloads for its miniature lunar rovers. Image used courtesy of NASA

In a program that they’ve whimsically dubbed "Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload," NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) is calling on the public for help. NASA will offer prizes for those who design winning payloads to small enough to fit into the miniature lunar rovers NASA and its commercial partners have developed.


The Goals of the Artemis Project

NASA pulls the name of the Artemis project from Greek mythology—Artemis being Apollo's sister.  The Artemis Project aims to pick up where the Apollo missions left off. The stated goal of the project is to “land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024." 


The timeline of the Artemis Project

The timeline of the Artemis Project. Image used courtesy of NASA


The project leaders also plan to establish a sustainable lunar presence by 2028, which will (hopefully) serve as a springboard to send astronauts to Mars.


The Key Technologies Fueling the Artemis Project

  • Ground systems such as launch pads and assembly buildings
  • NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built
  • Orion command module to protect astronauts on their trip from the earth to lunar orbit
  • Gateway, which will permanently orbit the moon and serve as a transit port between Earth and the expedition
  • Lunar landers to take the astronauts from the gateway to the lunar surface
  • Up-to-date space suits

NASA will have its hands full achieving these goals, so they’ve decided to outsource the task of designing the tiny payloads for its mini rovers to the technical community—namely, in the “Honey, I Shrunk the NASA Payload” project.


Requirements to Enter

The major point of the Artemis Project is for astronauts to establish a permanent presence on the moon. The project must support the goal of finding local resources on the moon that astronauts can use to minimize the need for resupply from Earth. NASA calls this particular effort in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).


A rendering of an ISRU system built for autonomous robotic to excavate and process soil for water on Mars

A rendering of an ISRU system built for autonomous robotic to excavate and process soil for water on Mars. Image used courtesy of NASA

To this end, payloads should be able to identify, characterize, and map lunar resources (like the valuable moon rock, regolith). Other requirements—including size, EMI/EMC, power, data, and "technology readiness" are outlined below. 


NASA Goes Small With Miniature Lunar Rovers

The aim of the competition is to develop payloads for the miniature lunar rovers NASA and its commercial partners have developed, and the rovers are small. Reminiscent of the CubeSat program we've discussed previously, the motivation may well be expendability. If they are small and plentiful, the loss of an individual payload won’t be catastrophic. 

The payloads must also be no larger than 100 mm x 100 mm x 50 mm and can weigh only 0.4 kilograms. They must also be able to operate over a temperature range of -120℃ to +100℃. 


Noise, Power, and Data

JPL provides a complete user’s guide for participants. Topics most of interest to electrical engineers include:


The hosting spacecraft operates on the familiar frequency bands of 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz. The payload will be subjected to a gamut of tests to ensure it will survive in a space environment. It cannot be so electrically noisy as to compromise the host.


The hosting spacecraft will offer a primary bus providing 8 V at 1 A for 50 ms and 4 W at 0.5 A continuously. There will also be secondary rails providing 3.3 V and 5 V, each at 0.1 A maximum.


There will be an array of General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) pins for communications between the spacecraft and the payload. The spacecraft will provide a 1 megabit/sec SPI bus and a 115 kbaud TX/RX UART.

The payload will be able to query the spacecraft for telemetry including:

  • 6-axis inertial measurement
  • Time
  • Temperature
  • Location and orientation

The maximum continuous data rate between payload and spacecraft will vary between 1 kb/sec and 2 kb/sec. As per the limitations of Zigbee, the maximum distance of the payload is 1 kilometer.


Technology Readiness Level

A goal of the competition is to establish a pipeline of payloads, and the first launch is only two years away. As such, NASA stipulates that all submitted projects must exhibit a technology readiness level (TLR) of TLR 3 or higher.


NASA’s TLR standards

NASA’s TLR standards. Image used courtesy of NASA



The Rewards to the Winning Participants

The prize pool amounts to $160,000. That’s divided into $100,000 for designs that NASA finds to have the greatest lunar resource potential and $60,000 designs best suited for the lunar environment. The details are spelled out on NASA’s guidelines page.

Winners will also have the chance to meet NASA’s top space scientists and engineers. There will also be invaluable social media and press promotion for successful participants.


Team Work Will Make the Dream Work

EEs participating will most likely be experts in power, motor systems, and sensors. Of course, the participation of mechanical engineers will also be vital. It can readily be anticipated that joint teams will do best, undoubtedly with a healthy sprinkling of civil engineers and others, too.

The fact that NASA is paying more for usable resources than it is for environmental survey indicates just how seriously NASA is taking the goal of establishing a permanent presence on the moon.