Everyone poops. But not everyone must do so while wearing a spacesuit in a complete vacuum.
The NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) has launched a competition to crowdsource ideas for how astronauts can safely defecate inside a pressure suit.
On the International Space Station, two toilets use a fan-driven suction system, which collects and stores solid waste until it can be disposed of. In case of emergency, crew members may be relegated to their suits, which provide clean air, shelter, water and enough nutrients to survive short-term (up to 6 days).
This isn't much of an issue, as the ISS operates only 250 miles above Earth -- a three-hour-or-less trip home. But as NASA sets its sights on interstellar missions, new refuse tech is needed.
"As humans push beyond low-earth orbit to travel to the moon and Mars, we will have many problems to solve -- most of them very complex, technical problems," NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio said in a video. "But some are as simple as 'How do we go to the bathroom in space?'"
The old standby solution -- an absorbent diaper -- works for liquid waste, but makes for an uncomfortable space walk if you have to go number two; given enough time, infection or sepsis can set in, harming or even killing astronauts.
NASA last month launched its Space Poop Challenge on open prize platform Hero X, encouraging folks to design an in-suit system that collects human waste and routes it away from the body, hands-free. The solution will be incorporated into the orange Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit (MACES), adapted for long-term missions of up to six days.
"It isn't glamorous, but it is necessary for survival," Mastracchio said.
Interested inventors have 21 days to enter for a chance to win $30,000 and bragging rights. The competition closes at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 20; winners will be announced on Jan. 31.
"Even though this technology is being developed for space flight, like many NASA technologies, it will have applications here on Earth," Mastracchio said. "Your ideas may not only save a crew of astronauts, but many people here on Earth."