The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in response to the increasing orbital debris challenge, is exploring whether a new industry could transform the debris into an orbital opportunity by creating feedstocks from recycled spacecraft. As a result, NASA is organising the Orbital Alchemy Challenge to discover innovative approaches to recycling objects in orbit.
The NASA Orbital Debris Program Office estimates more than 23,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 cm are currently in orbit around the Earth. Smaller pieces number in the millions. That debris comes in many forms: sections of rockets jettisoned during launch, non-operational satellites, and shrapnel created by collisions or explosions. As of last year, the estimate for the total amount of material in orbit exceeds 8,000 metric tons (17 million pounds), with an estimated value in the tens of billions of dollars. As humanity pushes further out into space, this space debris presents an opportunity to use materials already in orbit.
With this global ideation challenge, NASA seeks to inspire innovators of all ages, skills, and interests to consider how humans can use these materials to explore the cosmos more sustainably and cost-effectively. In addition, this challenge aims to explore whether recycling space assets (sections of rockets, satellites, etc.) can be cost-effective versus launching new materials into space. Since launch costs increase proportionally with mass, recycling larger objects means that cost-effectiveness will improve as more and more mass is recycled and reused while in orbit. Consequently, NASA targets those objects with the largest mass, typically greater than one metric ton.
A Judging Panel will evaluate all eligible submissions according to the following metrics:
- Technical merit – 20
- Cost-effectiveness – 20
- Safety – 20
- Technical maturity – 20
- Innovation – 10
- Proposal clarity – 10
The total prize pool for the Orbital Alchemy Challenge is USD 55,000, with the distribution as follows:
- One first-place prize: USD 25,000
- One second-place prize: USD 10,000
- Three third-place prizes: USD 5,000 each
- Five honourable mention prizes: USD 1,000 each
Additionally, the Challenge may also consider participants and winners for:
- An invitation to a pitch event to be held at Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo in September 2022;
- The Challenge will invite up to 15 top-rated respondents to pitch their technologies during Defense TechConnect Conference in Washington, D.C.
- Respondents may have competed for or have waived monetary awards.
- Connections to technology accelerators or other innovation development programs, including SBIR/STTR;
- Connections to existing developers and/or manufacturers;
- Invitations to NASA conferences and/or lectures;
- Opportunities to speak with broader space operations audiences
Furthermore, participants are eligible to win multiple awards if the entries are clearly distinguishable as novel and different from one another. This will be under the scope of the judging panel’s discretion.
To be considered a participant in the Challenge, individuals or teams must submit their non-confidential response via the Challenge website. As a result, the Challenge will not consider other means of entry.
The Challenge website is currently open for submission. However, participants must submit their entries electronically by Friday, 27 May 2022, by 8:00 pm EST. Likewise, the Challenge will not consider late entries.
Participation in the Challenge is free and open to all individuals and teams, provided that no participating individual is a citizen of a country on the NASA Export Control Program List Category II; Countries determined by the Department of State to support terrorism. (The current list of designated countries can be found here). This includes individuals with dual citizenship unless they are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent U.S. resident (green card holder). Further, pursuant to Public Law 112-55, NASA is prohibited from participating, collaborating, or coordinating bilaterally with China or any Chinese-owned company.
In addition, all participants must be at least 18 years of age, or if the legal age of majority in their jurisdiction of residence at the time of entry is greater than eighteen (18) years of age, then such greater legal age of majority, or must have written authorisation from a parent or legal guardian.
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