A newly announced contest asks students to propose design concepts for the Inspiration Mars mission, a private effort that aims to launch two astronauts on a flyby of the red planet in January 2018.

“Inspiration Mars is looking for the most creative ideas from engineers all over the world,” Dennis Tito, executive director of the nonprofit Inspiration Mars Foundation, said in an Aug. 16 statement.

“Furthermore, we want to engage the explorers of tomorrow with a real and exciting mission, and demonstrate what a powerful force space exploration can be in inspiring young people to develop their talent,” added Tito, a multimillionaire who in 2001 became the first space tourist when he paid his own way to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “This contest will accomplish both of those objectives.”

The competition, which is organized by the nonprofit Mars Society, challenges teams of university students from around the world to design a two-person 2018 Mars flyby mission as cheaply and safely as possible.

Teams — which can include university faculty and staff members, but not in a leading role — must submit their proposals by March 15, 2014. The top 10 concepts will be presented to a panel of judges a month later during a public event at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., Mars Society officials said.

First prize is $10,000, along with an all-expenses-paid trip to the Mars Society’s 2014 conference. The second- through fifth-place teams will receive $5,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.

“The Mars Society is delighted to lead this effort,” Mars Society President Robert Zubrin said in a statement. “This contest will provide an opportunity for legions of young engineers to directly contribute their talent to this breakthrough project to open the space frontier.” 

Inspiration Mars seeks to launch one man and one woman — preferably a married couple — on a 501-day round trip journey, punctuated by a close flyby of the red planet in August 2018. The mission would not land on Mars but would pass within 60 kilometers of the planet’s surface, officials say.

Tito has committed to provide two years of development funding for the mission, which was announced in February. Inspiration Mars officials hope to foot the bill the rest of the way by soliciting donations and securing media and naming rights, among other strategies.