NASA pondering two public contests to build small space exploration satellites

NASA challenges aimed at space communications and propulsion

NASA today said it was looking into developing two new 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.

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.  

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In a Request For Information published today, NASA said the two challenges would provide competitive opportunities for competition teams to deploy CubeSats on a NASA provided launch.  The cube-shaped satellites are typically  about four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds, NASA said.  The RFI looks to gather feedback on the two competitions being considered, the prize amounts and distribution structure as well as to determine the level of interest in potentially competing in these challenges.

The first challenge will focus on finding innovative ways to allow deep space communications with small spacecraft, while the second focuses on primary propulsion for small spacecraft. Currently CubeSat communications technology has been limited to low-bandwidth data communications in near-Earth orbits. CubeSats often use low power / low-gain communications subsystems, unique protocols, or amateur radio wavelengths not suitable for advanced science missions in the remote distances of deep space, NASA said.   As for the propulsion issue, NASA said developers are only starting to introduce limited in-space propulsion systems to CubeSats.  Together, these challenges are expected to contribute to opening deep space exploration to non-government spacecraft for the first time, NASA stated.

Specifically NASA said of the competitions: "Challenge 1 would award prizes in three areas: 1) ground demonstration of communications subsystem performance and acceptance for launch vehicle integration; 2) the highest data volume (bit error corrected) transmitted from and uplinked to a CubeSat within a prescribed period of time from at least 356,700 km (the minimum distance to the moon); and 3) the transmission of a prescribed small data set to the farthest distance beyond the moon and back to Earth. Challenge 2 (to be run concurrently with the Challenge I) would also award prizes in three areas: 1) ground demonstration of propulsion subsystem performance and acceptance for launch vehicle integration; 2) the first CubeSat to achieve a verifiable lunar orbit; and 3) verifiable achievement of at least a prescribed minimum number of lunar orbits."

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As currently envisioned, challenge competitors will develop their CubeSat, and then must successfully complete a series of reviews and ground based hardware tests, to be accepted for launch vehicle integration. Collectively these reviews and ground tests constitute Phase A of the challenges. All teams that meet all Phase A requirements will receive Phase A prizes. Phase B of the challenges will begin after the competitor spacecraft are separated from the launch vehicle. Selection for inclusion in Phase B will be based on team ranking according to the performance of their systems in the Phase A ground tests, NASA stated.

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