E. coli bacteria

The High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge is a NASA-inspired competition challenging citizen scientists to build hardware for collecting microorganisms at the edge of space.

Researchers have discovered that the Earth’s biosphere extends to much higher altitudes than previously suspected – up to 100,000 feet or more. The upper atmosphere could serve as a global transport system for disease organisms. It could also be a breeding ground for new diseases due to increased mutation rates from high levels of background radiation.

In the past, these organisms could only be collected by high-altitude balloons, with poor reliability. The new, low-cost suborbital spacecraft will be able to sample these organisms repeatedly with high reliability.

Citizens in Space is offering cash prizes up to $10,000 for the development of a collection device for these organisms.

The winning hardware will fly on the Lynx spacecraft, currently being developed by XCOR Aerospace. XCOR expects the Lynx to begin low-speed test flights in early 2013, followed by an incremental flight-test program lasting about a year.

The United States Rocket Academy has a contract for 10 Lynx flights. We expect that the winning hardware will fly all 10 flights, beginning in late 2013 or early 2014. It may fly additional missions on the Lynx and other suborbital vehicles in the future.

Who Can Compete?

Hobbyists, students, educators, and professional researchers are all invited to compete. Professional researchers who choose to compete will be treated as citizen scientists and must follow the same rules regarding open-source hardware and data.

Any US person may register to compete. This includes individuals, partnerships, corporations, and non-profit entities. We are currently researching the legal implications of allowing foreign persons to compete.

Government agencies and government-funded projects are not eligible to compete. Government employees are eligible to compete as private citizens, provided the hardware is not part of their government work but is developed on their own time, without government funding, support, or use of government facilities that are not freely available to the general public.

Team Registration

Any team planning to compete must register to indicate its intent to compete. A nominal registration fee will be charged to help defray administrative costs. Teams planning to compete are urged to register as soon as possible so that we can track progress, answer questions, and provide assistance. Details on the registration process will be available in the near future.

If you would like to be kept informed and notified when registration begins, please send a notice of intent to astrobio@rocketacademy.org.

Timeline and Judging

The competition timeline is not final at this time. Notional timeline calls for all hardware entries to be delivered sometime in mid-2013, with a judging period to follow. Judging will be conducted by a panel of expert scientists and engineers. Details of the judging process are still TBD, but may include wind-tunnel testing and high-altitude balloon flights to select the entry which has the best chance of being successful on a suborbital flight. More details will be added as they become available.


We are offering a $10,000 prize for the best hardware submitted to High Altitude Astrobiology Challenge. Best hardware means the hardware which our judges determine has the best chance of collecting microbes on a suborbital flight, and which meets our other criteria. We are also offering a $5000 reserve prize, which may be awarded to the second-place entry in the High Altitude Astrobiology Competition or to an entry from our general Call for Experiments, at the discretion of our judges.

General Requirements

All hardware submitted must be licensed as open-source hardware and accompanied by sufficient documentation to allow other experimenters to reproduce or modify the design. Open source is not a religious requirement, however. You can use proprietary or closed-source components as long as they are readily available to other citizen scientists. The open-source license will most likely be a Creative Commons license; further details on licensing will be provided in the future.

Designs should be replicable by other citizen scientists working on typical citizen-science budgets. They should not require one-of-a-kind parts, unobtainium, or facilities that are beyond the reach of citizen scientists.

Technical Requirements

The experiment will be carried in one of two Aft Cowling ports provided by the Lynx. The Aft Cowling Port is a cylinder 15 cm in diameter and 20 cm deep, which can accommodate payloads up to 2 kilograms.

Each port has a hatch which can be opened at a designated point in flight to expose a payload to space. The payload can return with the Lynx for runway landing or recovery, or it can be ejected from the vehicle by a spring launcher. If the payload is ejected, you must provide a recovery system. If the payload returns with the Lynx, you must provide a system to retract any components that are extended during flight.

A payload may be self-powered from its own batteries or draw power from the Lynx payload bus. More details are available in the Lynx Payload Users Guide, which is available on the XCOR Aerospace website.

Competitors can use the full volume of the Aft Cowling Port, if necessary. We recommend, however, that payloads be confined to a 2U CubeSat volume (10 cm x 10 cm x 20 cm) if at all possible. That form factor will maximize compatibility with other launch systems that may be used in the future.


If you have questions about the competition, you can send them to astrobio@rocketacademy.org and we’ll do our best to answer, either here or by email. We can’t promise to know the answer to every question just yet, though.

Written by Astro1 on May 19th, 2012

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