The first team of scientists to invent a way to extract breathable oxygen from lunar soil will be awarded $250,000, NASA announced on Thursday.
The technology could be used by astronauts during a long-term stay on the moon or modified to support a trip to Mars. The Bush administration has made both missions a priority for NASA in a road map called the Vision for Space Exploration.
“The use of resources on other worlds is a key element of the Vision for Space Exploration,” said NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Craig Steidle in a statement. “This challenge will reach out to inventors who can help us achieve the vision sooner.”
Inventors who attempt the Moon Regolith Oxygen (or MoonROx) challenge will have just eight hours to extract at least 11 pounds of breathable oxygen from a simulated form of lunar soil.
Most participants are likely to build devices that use heat and chemicals to coax the minerals in the soil into releasing the oxygen molecules bound to them.
The teams have until June 1, 2008, to come up with the technology, or the $250,000 prize is off the table, according to NASA.
The MoonROx contest is the third to be unveiled under the space agency’s new Centennial Challenges program. NASA hopes the program will spark technical innovations, in the same way last year’s independent Ansari X Prize spurred the first private flight into space.
In March, NASA announced awards of $50,000 each to the first teams to develop a space-age tether and a wireless method for powering robots.