NASA

Sometime in the 2030s, the not-too-distant future, NASA hopes to send the first manned mission to Mars. That means the space agency has about two decades to solve the many, many problems with a hypothetical mission.

Back in 2013, Wired listed the challenges we’ll have to overcome to bring people to the Red Planet:

“… we can’t properly store the necessary fuel long enough for a Mars trip, we don’t yet have a vehicle capable of landing people on the Martian surface, and we aren’t entirely sure what it will take to keep them alive once there.”

So in looking for solutions, NASA is casting a wide net—including reaching out to citizen scientists. To that end, the agency invited the public to participate in a challenge to help solve one problem: how to protect astronauts in deep space.

Cosmic rays, image via NASA.

In November of last year, NASA and crowdsourcing company Innocentive announced the challenge and the promise of a cash prize. The agency laid out the problem:

“Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) permeate the universe and exposure to them is inevitable during space exploration… long duration exposure to GCR will exceed allowable career radiation exposure limits during any meaningful deep space mission.”

And the necessary solution:

“Protection is needed to allow for safe and successful long duration human missions such as going to Mars. NASA is seeking to identify key solutions that will protect astronauts from GCR, specifically a way to reduce exposure.”

Contestants had just over a month to submit ideas for consideration, and $5,000 in prize money was at stake.

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In April, the winner was announced: Experimental nuclear physicist Dr. George Hitt, an assistant professor of Physics and Nuclear Engineering at Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates. In an email to Fusion, Hitt described his $5,000 idea as a play on traditional methods of shielding astronauts from the harmful rays.

Hitt's shield, courtesy of George Hitt.

According to Hitt, “The best known method of [radiation] protection is to surround travellers with several meters of material that slows or absorbs the radiation.” In essence, Hitt wants to protect space travelers from radiation by building an interplanetary transit system:

“The shield and its orbit function like a city bus. At regular intervals, it will come close enough to Earth for a spacecraft to fly up to it and hitch a ride inside of it. After riding to Mars orbit, it would detach and leave the shield material behind, to return back to Earth. When the travellers want to return to Earth, they would again wait for the right time, rendezvous with the shield and ride inside of it back to Earth's orbit.”

Hitt says it didn’t take him very long to come up with the solution. “Actually, the idea for separating shield and ship came to me while playing LEGOS with my children one Saturday afternoon. I wrote and submitted the solution by the same evening!”

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Not too shabby for an after-playtime activity. Still the winning ideas didn’t solve the ultimate problem—but they do bring us closer to finding a solution. Said NASA in a statement.

“While the five winners selected in the first challenge did not identify a solution that ultimately solves the problem of GCR risk to human crews, the first place idea did provide a novel approach to using and configuring known methods of protection to save substantial launch mass and lower launch costs over multiple missions.”

NASA’s Kerry Lee, the challenge’s technical lead, confirmed the sentiment in an email to Fusion: “We didn’t receive any breakthrough solutions that brought us to an 'ah ha' moment.” Of 136  submissions, he added, the ideas ranged "from absolutely silly and some absurd with no physical possibility of working all the way to well thought out concepts of operation in dealing with the radiation problem.”

Markus Novak, who tied for fourth place and walked away from the challenge with $1,000, based his solution on basic science. Novak, an Electrical Engineering PhD student at the Ohio State University, told Fusion in an email that “cosmic radiation wasn't something I had ever given much thought to before. But it ultimately boiled down to high school physics.”

Graphic from Novak’s submission, courtesy of Markus Novak.

Novak proposed a safe space for astronauts to travel through: “In a nutshell, I had found some previous NASA research that used magnets to deflect the rays—but the thing is, cosmic rays are coming in with absurd amounts of energy… so it takes quite a lot of power to turn these things back. So instead, I developed a lens, which would alter the trajectory just enough to miss the spacecraft.”

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Now, the challenge doors are again open, and the stakes are higher. “The follow-on challenge offers an award of up to $30,000 for design ideas to protect the crew on long-duration space missions,” said NASA. The agency is accepting applications through June 29.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.