NASA Sets Centennial Challenges to Boost Robotic Space Exploration

Riding a Beam of Light: NASA's First Space Elevator Competition Proves Highly Challenging
The University of British Columbia entry makes its way skyward during NASA's first Centennial Challenge competition, which challenged competitors to build robots capable of climbing a ribbon using beamed energy. (Image credit: R. Gilbertson.)

NASAannounced two new cash prizes Friday, each with a weighty $250,000 purse, in apair of contests aimed at developing robotic systems for space exploration.

The spaceagency is challenging innovators to build an autonomous aerial vehicle to navigatea tricky flight path or robots capable of building complex structures with onlylimited guidance from their human handlers, NASA officials said.

Thecontests - dubbed the Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Telerobotic Constructionchallenges, respectively - are part of the agency's CentennialChallenges program to spur interest in commercializing space technologies.Both challenges will make their competitive debut in 2007, NASA officials said.

"The TeleroboticConstruction Challenge is directly linked to NASA's focus on lunar exploration,"said Brant Sponberg, NASA's Centennial Challenges program manager, in astatement.

Meanwhile,the aerial vehicle challenge may yield the same type of probes that could oneday soar through the atmospheres of Mars and the Saturnian moon Titan,NASA officials said.

Achallenging year

NASA has announceda series of new Centennial Challenges this year, including contests to developsystems for new astronaut gloves, suborbitalvehicles and devices to excavate and pull oxygenfrom Moon dirt.

The programalso held its first actual competitions in October during the 2005Beam Power and Tether Centennial Challenges, which drew 11 teams to competein two events for a pair of $50,000 first prizes. Both awards went unclaimed,but NASA has promised larger cash prizes for the 2006 meet.

"Based onour experiences with the Beam Power and Tether Centennial Challenges, weanticipate a broad variety of participants, ideas and real hardware for thiscompetition," Sponberg said of the aerial vehicle contest.

In order tonab top billing in the Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge, entriesmust be fly using visual navigation systems only - Global Positioning Systems(GPS) aren't allowed - as well as extend and retract a probe to hit multipleground targets, they added.

TheCalifornia Space Education and Workforce Institute, of Santa Maria, California,is working with NASA in the competition.

NASA is alsopartnering with the Mountain View, California-based firm Spaceward Foundation -which organized the beam power and tether contest for the space agency - forits the Telerobotic Construction Challenge.

While contestrules will be finalized in 2006, event planners expect competitors to userobots to assemble structures from materials scattered across an arena. Theneed for cooperative robots and a time delay similar to that in Earth-Mooncommunications will complicate the task, NASA officials said.

The firstTelerobotic Construction challenge is slated for August 2007, with the aerialvehicle contest to follow in October of that year, NASA officials said.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.