NASA setting up $250,000 Mars lander competition

NASA wants robotic spacecraft to land, grab a sample and leave

NASA this week said it is exploring setting up one of its iconic Centennial Challenge competitions for companies to build a robotic Mars landing spacecraft

NASA said it would expect to have about $250,000 worth of prize money for a robotic spacecraft that could land on the Red Planet, retrieve a sample and return it to orbit.

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From NASA: "This Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge would provide opportunities to evaluate a wide range of innovative methods to insert the sample, provide sample containment, erect the launch vehicle and deploy the sample container with limited human intervention and validate a reliable methodology. This challenge especially seeks to engage the amateur robotics and rocketry communities to provide solutions.

The Challenge would award prizes for successful demonstration of an end-to-end autonomous operation to sequentially accomplish the following tasks: picking up the sample, inserting the sample into a single stage rocket in a horizontal position, erecting the rocket, launching the rocket to an altitude not less than 800m, deploying a sample container with the cache internally sealed and landing the container at less than 6m/s terminal velocity. "

The Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge is only in the planning stages and NASA is now evaluating how to proceed.  The space agency said it is now looking to gather feedback on the competition being considered, the prize amounts and distribution structure; determine the level of interest in potentially competing in this challenge, and understand the applicability of the challenge capabilities for other non-government applications.

Centennial Challenges typically dare public and private partnerships to come up with a unique solution to a very tough problem, usually with prize money attached for the winner.  Centennial Challenges in the past have typically required several annual competitions to occur before the total prize purses, which can be in the millions-of-dollars range, have been claimed.  

In February NASA said it was looking into developing two other Centennial Challenge competitions that would let the public design, build and deliver small satellites known as Cubesats capable of operations and experiments near the moon and beyond.

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