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NASA offers $5 million for new feats

NASA today announced three new competitions offering a total of $5 million in prizes — and only one of them involves actually putting something in outer space.

The space-based Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge offers $2 million for putting a satellite into Earth orbit twice in one week. The other contests are the $1.5 million Night Rover Challenge for solar-powered robots that store up enough energy to operate in darkness, and the $1.5 million Sample Return Robot Challenge for machines that can retrieve geological samples from a variety of locations without human intervention.

Many of the details - including the specific requirements for winning the money, and how the purse will be divided - still have to be worked out. "We intentionally didn't specify too much, " Andrew Petro, manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges, told me today.

Those details will be worked out with partner organizations to be named in October, Petro said. The nonprofit partners will manage the contests on NASA's behalf, and also raise the money for contest operations. NASA will be responsible only for providing the purse.

The themes of the new competitions, as well as the solicitation for partnership proposals, were made public today during a space technology industry forum at the University of Maryland. NASA's chief technologist, Bobby Braun, said in a news release that such contests "are a proven way to foster technological competitiveness, new industries and innovation across America."

Last year, NASA awarded $3.65 million to private-sector teams in four Centennial Challenge contests. California-based Masten Space Systems was the big million-dollar winner in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, and other teams won prizes as well for building prototypes for lunar landers, moon-dirt diggers, power-beaming systems and a better astronaut glove.

Three competitions are currently in active mode: a $2 million challenge to create super-strong tethers (to be run Aug. 13 at the Space Elevator Conference), a $1.1 million contest for higher-powered beaming systems (with tests expected this fall), and a $1.65 million race for alternative-fueled aircraft (planned in July 2011).

All these challenges are aimed at encouraging private-sector groups to come up with technological solutions to issues NASA has to deal with in aeronautics and space exploration. "We're trying to engage a broader group of people in participating with us in research on the frontier of air and space technology," Petro said.

Nanosatellites on the rise
The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge has an obvious outer-space application. "It's hard to think of a more worthy subject for a prize," William Pomerantz, senior director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation, told me today.

Small satellite programs, such as the university-led CubeSat effort, have revolutionized how space science is done. The Firefly mission to study gamma-ray flashes and the Planetary Society's Lightsail-1 mission are among the best-known CubeSat launches on the horizon. But small satellites currently have to fly standby, as piggyback payloads for larger-scale launches. "There haven't been any real launch vehicles that have been designed specifically to launch a few CubeSats," said Morehead State University's Bob Twiggs, co-director of the CubeSat Project.

Some companies, including Masten Space as well as Interorbital Systems and Garvey Spacecraft, are already developing launch vehicles to cater to the small-satellite market - and they're considered likely to enter the $2 million contest once the details are worked out. Interorbital is taking $8,000 deposits for "TubeSat" launches that could begin as early as next year.

CubeSat's other co-director, CalPoly Professor Jordi Puig-Suari, said lower-cost orbital launches for nanosats (weighing 1 to 10 kilograms) and CubeSats (about a kilogram) could open up new frontiers for rocket-powered research in the upper atmosphere, near-space and other unusual orbital neighborhoods.

"I don't know what will happen," he told me. "I think half of the things are things you can't predict. The reason I say that is because when we started with CubeSats, we didn't know what would happen. We thought we did, but we didn't."

Robots that keep going, and going ...
The other two new contests target technologies that will be key for future robotic space exploration, but can be applied to earthly challenges as well.

The Night Rover Challenge, for example, will require teams to develop energy storage systems that can keep solar-powered rovers going through the long, cold Martian night (12 hours), or the even longer and colder lunar night (which lasts two weeks).

Better energy storage systems could reduce the need for plutonium-based power devices - such as the one planned for NASA's Curiosity rover, due for launch to Mars next year. And on Earth, they could open the way for longer-range electric vehicles and the wider use of solar and wind power.

The Sample Return Robot Challenge would reward the development of smarter rovers that can cruise along the Martian surface and identify promising samples to send back to Earth, without a human having to plot every twist and turn in the trip. On Earth, such advances in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies could be applied to smarter underwater vehicles (like the ones currently dealing with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) or semi-autonomous cars that are smart enough to avoid crashes even if the driver falls asleep at the wheel.

But wait ... there's more
The new Centennial Challenges aren't the only innovations that NASA announced today: The space agency also said it intended to revive NIAC, the gee-whiz research operation that some have compared to the Defense Department's DARPA think tank. The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts was shut down in 2007 as a cost-cutting move.

The new NIAC isn't exactly the same as the old one, which was run out of Atlanta by outside researchers. "It's now a program within NASA," based at the agency's Washington headquarters, Petro said. The acronym now stands for "NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts." NASA's own researchers as well as outside scientists and engineers would be eligible to receive grants to pursue out-of-the-box, long-term projects. (Further hints about NIAC's future are laid out on page 22 of this PowerPoint presentation.)

Petro emphasized that the funding for NIAC would have to be appropriated by Congress as part of the agency's budget for fiscal year 2011. In contrast, the money for the new Centennial Challenge prizes is already available from past appropriations.

Pomerantz said he couldn't yet predict whether the X Prize Foundation would put in a proposal to manage any of the new challenges, but he took today's announcements as a sign that NASA still has the right stuff when it comes to fostering American innovation.

"They're all exactly the kind of stuff that I want to see my space agency doing," Pomerantz said.

What do you think? Got any bright ideas for solving the million-dollar challenges? Are there other challenges you'd put on NASA's to-do list? Feel free to discuss them in your comments below.

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