NASA amps up wicked cool competitive prize program

NASA's Centennial Challenges bring out the best the scientific world has to offer

  • NASA this month greatly expanded its public prize competition program known as the [[xref:|Centennial Challenges|Centennial Challenges]]. The [[xref:|space agency|space agency]] announced US$5 million worth of new competitions to develop robots, small satellites and solar-powered spacecraft. Since 2005, NASA has conducted 19 competition events in six challenge areas and awarded $4.5 million to 13 different teams. NASA challenges are managed with significant partners such as the X Prize Foundation, Northrop Grumman and others. Here we take a look at previous Challenges and the new programs to come.

  • Digging in the dirt: Here teams were competing to design and build robotic machines that can dig Lunar dirt. The robots competed in a box containing 8 tons of simulated lunar regolith that is about 4 meters square and about 1/2 meter deep. In order to qualify for a prize, a robot had to dig up and then dump at least 150 kg of regolith into a container in 30 minutes. In 2009 the [[xref:|$750,000 prize|]] went to Paul's Robotics, Terra Engineering, and Team Braundo,
  • Fly me to the moon: In 2009 NASA awarded $1.65 million in prize money to a pair of aerospace companies that successfully simulated landing a spacecraft on the moon and lifting off again. NASA gave a $1 million first prize to Masten Space Systems and a $500,000 second prize to Armadillo Aerospace for successfully completing the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. In the end, the average landing accuracy determined which teams landed first and second place prizes. Amazingly, the average accuracy for Armadillo Aerospace flights was 87 cm, but the Masten team achieved an accuracy of 19 cm, moving them into first place.
  • Zap it: In the [[xref:|Power Beaming Challenge|Power Beaming Challenge]], teams must transmit power using laser beams to a device, so it can climb a vertical cable more than half a mile high. There has been success in this Challenge as NASA and the Spaceward Foundation awarded $900,000 to LaserMotive LLC, of Seattle, in 2009. According to NASA the Challenge is a demonstration of wireless power transmission where teams build and demonstrate systems to beam energy from the ground to a robotic device that climbs a vertical cable. To compete, teams must integrate a complex set of technical skills for optical beam forming, electro-mechanical beam tracking, photovoltaic beam conversion, power capture electronics and mechanical drive. To win a prize, the climber must reach the top of the cable at a height of 1 km. The next iteration of the Challenge is planned for the fall of 2010.
  • Strong like bull: According to NASA, the $2 million Strong Tether Challenge is one of advanced materials engineering. Here each team's tether must exceed the strength of the best available commercial tether by 50% with no increase in mass. According to NASA, in 2009 only one team, led by Yoku Inoue, came to the event and only in an exhibition capacity. The team brought a 2.2-meter-length loop of carbon nanotube material that failed at a level well below its expected strength but the fabrication of the carbon nanotube loop itself was a significant accomplishment, NASA said. The next Challenge round is planned for the fall of 2010.
  • Put a glove on it: Gloves are one of the more difficult items to design on a space suit, according to NASA. They need to be super-flexible and durable. The Astronaut Glove Challenge found competitors showing off glove designs performing a range of tasks with the glove in an evacuated chamber. Peter Homer of Southwest Harbor, Maine, won the first place prize of $250,000 and Ted Southern of Brooklyn, N.Y., won the second place [[xref:|prize|Astronaut Glove]] of $100,000. Horner also won in 2007.
  • Breathe!: NASA says this Challenge has expired. But had it achieved success, the Lunar Oxygen Production Challenge would have generated breathable oxygen from simulated lunar soil. Advancements in this field would enable much more capable human establishments on the moon and eventually at other destinations in the solar system, NASA stated.
  • Going green: Here teams will fly aircraft they designed to travel 200 miles in less than two hours using the energy equivalent of less than 1 gallon of gasoline per occupant. The challenge will be held in July 2011. It is expected to attract electric, hybrid and bio-fueled aircraft. According to NASA this Challenge began in 2007 as the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge and in 2008 it was called the General Aviation Technology Challenge. Awards totaling $250,000 were made in the 2007 competition and awards totaling $97,000 were made [[xref:|in 2008|NASA looking for a few cool (and green) aircraft]]. The [[xref:|prize|The CAFE 2011 Green Flight Challenge]] this time is $1,650,000. The competition will be held in July 2011 in Santa Rosa, Calif.
  • I am robot: One of three new challenges NASA announced in July, the Sample Return Robot Challenge is to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from wide and varied terrain without human control. This challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objectives are to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies. NASA at one point had envisioned robots the size of [[xref:|riding lawn mowers|NASA: Lawn mower-sized robots may build lunar outpost]] building a lunar outpost before humans made their next trip to the moon.
  • Nano-nano: Another new competition, the [[xref:|Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge|Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge]], is to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week, with a prize of $2 million. The goals of this challenge are to stimulate innovations in low-cost launch technology and encourage creation of commercial nano-satellite delivery services. NASA isn't the only agency interested in cubesats. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has talked about building similar small satellites. Its Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft United by Information Exchange also known as the [[xref:|System F6|System F6]], is intended to let the agency deploy individual pieces or what it calls "fractionated modules" of current monolith satellites.
  • The dark side: The final new competition is called the Night Rover Challenge and is supposed to demonstrate a solar-powered exploration vehicle that can operate in darkness using its own stored energy. The prize purse is $1.5 million. The objective is to stimulate innovations in energy storage technologies in extreme space environments, such as the surface of the moon, or for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems on Earth. NASA at one point had [[xref:|demonstrated|NASA to demonstrate moon rover's vital features]] a Lunar Rover that had some of the qualities desired in this Challenge.
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