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NASA’s New Citizen-Inventor Space Challenges Revealed, With Bigger Prize Fund

NASA today revealed its newest batch of Centennial Challenges. As well as pointing to future directions for space science, they’re a gentle booster for President Obama’s plans to get more people involved in the space biz–including you.

NASA Challenges

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NASA today revealed its newest batch of Centennial Challenges. As well as pointing to future directions for space science, they’re a gentle booster for President Obama’s plans to get more people involved in the space biz–including you.

The Centennial challenges are competitions a bit like the X-Prize that NASA uses to encourage novel thinking about space missions from non-government bodies, and these are the first new ones since 2005. The hope is that the space industry gets a nice community-spirited PR boost, and NASA may benefit from unusual ideas that it may never have dreamed up inside its own R&D laboratories: It’s a kind of “everybody wins” thing. In fact, there really are winners, as there’s a cash prize associated with each challenge, and this part of NASA’s budget is one of those rare bits that’s actually increased. This year the fund’s risen to $10 million, where it’ll remain per year until 2015. Though that’s a huge amount to the winners, it’s mere small change for NASA.

The new challenges are:

  • Nano Satellite Launch. Teams have to get a tiny satellite into orbit twice inside a week. There’s a $2 million prize if a team can achieve this kind of clever low-cost launch/rapid launch pad turn-around task.
  • Night Rover Challenge. $1.5 million will go to the team who can build a science rover, notionally destined for extra-terrestrial use, that’s powered by solar energy during the day, and can store enough energy to operate continuously through the night.
  • Sample Return Robot. NASA’s wrestled with this task for decades, and will hand over $1.5 million to the teams who can build a robot that can automatically get geological samples and return them to base.

The tasks reveal NASA’s new focus on fast, cheap access to orbit and the surface of other planets. They also will spin-off technologies that can work on Earth too, like eco-friendly solar power systems and advanced robots for automated task management. Given the slightly depressing state of NASA’s big public-facing space missions, any move like this to stir up interest in space and science in general is a good thing.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)

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