In New Contests, NASA Invites Citizens To Design Robots and Satellites

ADELPHI,Md. - NASA on Tuesday announced three new multimillion-dollar contests to buildsmart robots and launch tiny satellites as part of a program to develop innovationsof benefit not only to the U.S. space agency but to the nation at large.

Thecontests are NASA's newest CentennialChallenges, which offer cash prizes for technological achievements by teamswho work without government funding. A combined prize incentive of $5 millionwill be split among the three competitions.

Thecompetitions call on teams to repeatedly launch miniature satellites intoorbit, develop a solar-powered rover that can run at night on stored energy, orbuild a sample-return robot that can navigate over varied terrain and retrievean identifiable object.

?NASAsponsors prize competitions because the agency believes student teams, privatecompanies of all sizes and citizen-inventors can provide creative solutions toproblems of interest to NASA and the nation,? said Robert Braun, NASA'schief technologist. ?Prize competitions are a proven way to fostertechnological competitiveness, new industries and innovation across America.?

Thecontests were announced here at the Space Technology Industry Forum, hosted by NASA?s?Office of the Chief Technologist. The OCT is responsible for direct managementof the space agency?s space technology programs, and for coordinating andtracking all technology investments across the agency.

Nightrovers and nanosatellites

CentennialChallenges are open to individuals, groups and companies working outside of thetraditional aerospace industry. Monetary awards are made after solutions aresuccessfully demonstrated; the participants maintain ownership of theirintellectual properties.

Since2005, NASA has conducted 19 competitions in six challenge areas and has awarded$4.5 million to 13 different teams.

Theobjective of one of the new competitions, the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge,is to place a small satellite into Earth orbit twice in one week. The purposes behindthis challenge are to stimulate innovation in low-cost launch technology andencourage creation of commercial nano-satellite delivery services. Thechallenge carries a potential prize of $2 million.

TheNight Rover Challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objective is tosupport innovations in energy-storage technologies that could prove valuable inextreme space environments, such as on the surfaceof the moon.

Technologicaladvances in this area also could have applications on Earth for electricvehicles and renewable energy systems, NASA officials said.

?Witha lot of these things, there could be tremendous spin-offs in other fields,?said Andrew Petro, Centennial Challenges program executive.

Thethird contest, with $1.5 million in prize money, is ?the Sample Return RobotChallenge. It calls for teams to build and demonstrate a robot that can locateand retrieve geological samples from wide and varied terrain without humancontrol. The challenge focuses on innovations in automatic navigation androbotic manipulator technologies.

?TheCentennial Challenges have been recognized by the White House and theadministration as an innovative approach to doing business,? Braun said. ?It?san approach in which we engage a wide variety of innovators across the nation.Through the spacetechnology program, we hope to take that innovation and shine it like alaser on our space program and change the way we do business in the future.?

Pushingspace technology forward

Theprogram initiatives under the space technology program ? including the CentennialChallenges ? are subject to Congressional approval. The OCT has requested $10million in federal funding each year through 2015 as part of the expansion ofthe Centennial Challenges.

Whilethe future of the program is contingent upon the allocation of funds in the budgetsof fiscal 2011 and beyond, officials at the Office of the Chief Technologist areconfident that NASA?s revised space technology program can help restore thespace agency?s cutting-edge technological prowess.

?Therehas been significant debate in Congress already for the need for a program justlike this,? Braun said. ?We?ve taken all the external input, all the criticismsfrom NASA?s past, and from that we have shaped the space technology program.?

Meanwhile,three other Centennial Challenges are scheduled over the next year:

  • The Strong Tether Challenge: Teams must demonstrate a material that is at least 50 percent stronger than the strongest commercially available. The challenge is scheduled for Aug. 13 in Seattle.

  • The Power Beaming Challenge: Using laser beams, teams must transmit enough power to a device for it to climb more than half a mile of vertical cable. The challenge is planned for the fall of 2010.

  • The Green Flight Challenge: Teams will try to design and fly aircraft 200 miles in less than two hours using the energy equivalent of less than one gallon of gasoline per occupant. The challenge will be held in July 2011. It is expected to attract electric, hybrid and bio-fueled aircraft.

NASAis currently soliciting proposals from nonprofit organizations looking tomanage each of the three new Centennial Challenges competitions.

Afterthese partner organizations are signed, they will work in conjunction with NASAto determine the rules and details of the challenges, which are expected to beannounced later this year.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.