NASA is launching a contest for innovative aerosol sensor designs. Prospective designers have a chance to win a $100K prize, and their solution could be a mainstay in future space missions as well as here on Earth.

We all eat, drink, breathe, and sleep, and as basic and commonplace these vital activities are on Earth, in space, they turn into tricky technical challenges.

Even if we can do without food and water for several days, without air, it’s a matter of a few minutes before we drop dead.

In space, to quote Alien the movie, “no one can hear you scream” because there’s no air at all.

alien gif
Alien

In the International Space Station, oxygen is generated using H2O and electricity, but air quality, particularly the number of aerosol particles in the air, remains a cause for concern.

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NASA cannot afford to put a conventional aerosol device in the ISS as they’re too big. So, in an attempt to ensure optimal health conditions for astronauts and to better understand the air composition in the ISS, NASA hopes their competition will stir innovation and create a solution.

Aerosols, Airborne Pollutants

Also known as particulates, aerosols are minute airborne particles with a negligible rate of fall.

Aerosols are naturally occurring, but anthropogenic activities are also responsible for the release of large aerosol quantities into the atmosphere.

Aerosols can be solid or liquid, organic or inorganic, and their size varies from a few tenths of a nanometer to a hundred micrometers.

Easily inhaled, aerosols are considered pollutants that can have adverse health effects. The largest particles are typically filtered and then eliminated in the nose or in the upper respiratory tract, but the smallest particles can slip past these defenses and create negative health effects.

respiratory tract
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Atmospheric aerosol particles have been shown to trigger certain respiratory function disorders, such as asthma attacks and COPD, and can increase the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, especially in sensitive subjects.

NASA’s Earth and Space 100K Air Prize Competition

With financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a philanthropic organization, NASA announced the launch of the Earth and Space Air Prize.

The $100,000 technology competition is inviting teams and individual inventors to design sensors that detect aerosols in the air and work as an alert system.

Although there’s a wide range of particulate-detecting and air monitoring solutions already available, they don’t meet NASA’s requirements.

“Current aerosol instrument technology is too large.  It doesn’t offer the necessary level of sensitivity or longevity, along with the ability to operate in reduced-gravity,” said Paul Mudgett of NASA’s Biomedical Research and Environment Sciences Division. “Using this collaboration with RWJF, we have an incredible opportunity to close this gap.”

NASA is seeking aerosol sensors that are robust and durable, lightweight, easy-to-use and inexpensive that could be used for space and Earth habitats.

Those who would like to enter the competition should register by December 13th, 2017 and submit their design idea before January 31st, 2018.

By the end of March 2018, NASA will award three finalists $50,000 each to build a prototype based on their idea. Then, after delivering their prototypes for final evaluation and testing by the end of September, they’ll have a chance to win the $100,000 grand prize.

Winners will retain the rights to their sensors and could negotiate with NASA to grant it a license to use their solution in its future missions.

So what are you waiting for, inventors? Get to it!

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