NASA recruiting sponsors for new high-tech competitions

NASA gearing up for more Centennial Challenges

Organizing, managing, running and paying for a high-tech competition, especially the kind NASA typically offers can be an expensive proposition. 

That's why the space agency today put out a call for what it calls Allied Organizations to help it run its Centennial Challenge program. The job is for the seriously committed sponsor as NASA says the organization will be responsible for Challenge planning, recruitment, administration, execution and publicity. NASA provides the prize purse (which can be supplemented by outside organizations) but no funding for the conduct of the competition itself.

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NASA said Allied Organizations must administer the Challenges with their own funding or they must acquire the funding needed to administer the Challenges through partnerships with sponsoring organizations or through other means.

NASA set up its Centennial Challenges to get what it calls "unconventional solutions from non-traditional sources." It also hopes to identify new tech talent and stimulate the creation of new businesses. Unlike contracts and grants based on proposals, prizes are only awarded after competitors have successfully demonstrated their innovations. Competitors retain ownership of their intellectual property, NASA noted.

You may recall that last July NASA significantly expanded its Centennial Challenges program to include $5 million worth of new competitions.  The new challenges include: 

  • § The Sample Return Robot Challenge is to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from wide and varied terrain without human control. This challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objectives are to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies.
  • § The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week, with a prize of $2 million. The goals of this challenge are to stimulate innovations in low-cost launch technology and encourage creation of commercial nano-satellite delivery services.
  • § The Night Rover Challenge is to demonstrate a solar-powered exploration vehicle that can operate in darkness using its own stored energy. The prize purse is $1.5 million. The objective is to stimulate innovations in energy storage technologies of value in extreme space environments, such as the surface of the moon, or for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems on Earth.

It is the Night Rover Challenge that NASA is particularly interested in gaining a sponsor right now.  NASA said selection of a partner for this announcement is expected to occur by May 30, 2011.

Such requests for competition partners could become more widespread with government agencies.  When the America Competes Act was renewed by Congress a few weeks back it gave every department and agency the authority to conduct prize competitions, according to the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.   Prizes and challenges have an excellent track record of accelerating problem-solving by tapping America's top talent and best expertise.

According to the Office of Science and Technology Policy blog: "Whether it's developing new products that will be manufactured in America, or getting and using energy more sustainably, or improving health care with better therapies and better use of information technology, or providing better protection for our troops abroad and our citizens at home, innovation will be key to our success."

The prize competition idea follows on some very successful challenge programs offered by the X Prize Foundation and the government's own Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Challenge.gov site. 

And in its first 3 months, Challenge.gov featured 57 challenges from 27 agencies across the Executive Branch, generating novel solutions for childhood obesity, advanced vehicle technologies, financing for small businesses, Type One Diabetes, and many other national priorities, the blog states.

And in February, the master competition masters at X Prize Foundation announced the 29 international teams that will compete for the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, the competition to put a robot on the moon by 2015.

To win the money, a privately-funded team must successfully place a robot on the Moon's surface that explores at least 500 meters and transmits high definition video and images back to Earth.   The first team to do so will claim a $20 million Grand Prize, while the second team will earn a $5 million.

Teams are also eligible to win a $1 million award for stimulating diversity in the field of space exploration and as much as $4 million in bonus prizes for accomplishing additional technical tasks such as moving ten times as far, surviving the frigid lunar night, or visiting the site of a previous lunar mission, according to the X Prize folks. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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