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NASA Challenges Public to Design a Piece of a Mars Probe

NASA has challenged the public to design part of a spacecraft that could land future spacefliers on the surface of Mars.

The NASA Mars Balance Mass Challenge runs through Nov. 21. The agency will announce the winning design in January 2015, and the winner will receive a grand prize of $20,000.

Humanity has had its eyes set on Mars since the 1960s. In the 1970s, NASA began landing spacecraft on Mars, and in the 1990s, wheeled robots started exploring the surface. In 2012, NASA's Curiosity rover touched down on the Red Planet in spectacular fashion.

But now, the agency is looking ahead to future manned missions crewed by the first "Marsonauts."

"Now it's time to send humans," David Miller, NASA chief technologist, said Saturday during a presentation at the World Maker Faire in New York. [The Boldest Mars Missions in History]

Landing a spacecraft on Mars is no small feat. The Curiosity rover needed to be perfectly balanced when it was hurtling toward the Red Planet in 2012. When it approached the Martian atmosphere, the craft ejected two 154-pound (70-kilogram) weights. This disrupted the spacecraft's balance, which helped it slow down as it slipped into the alien atmosphere. Just before it landed, the spacecraft released six other 55-pound (25-kilogram) weights to rebalance the craft so that it could land safely.

This meticulous balancing act is complicated, and that's where the public comes in, Miller said. NASA is challenging the public to design balancing weights that are up to 330 pounds (150 kilograms). NASA scientists want the weights to double as scientific instruments for the Red Planet.

To learn more about the Mars Balance Mass Challenge, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/solve/marsbalancechallenge/.

— Kelly Dickerson, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from Space.com. Read the full report. Follow Kelly Dickerson on Twitter. Follow Space.com on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.