NASA forming $3M satellite communication, propulsion competition

NASA took the next step in forming a large-scale, $3 million competition to build advanced propulsion and communications technologies for small, inexpensive satellite systems known as cubesats.

 The Cubesat Lunar Challenge will be broken up into two areas: propulsion and communication while in orbit around the moon. In Request For Information published this week, NASA said the two challenges would provide competitive opportunities for a variety of competition teams to deploy cubesats on a NASA or third-party provided launch. 

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 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 purposes of this RFI are to gather feedback on the two updated challenges being considered, the overall challenge structure, draft rules, and determine the level of interest in potentially competing in this Centennial Challenge.

 Centennial Challenges typically dare public, academic 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.  

 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.

 Some specifics of the Challenge:

  • NASA said the Lunar Propulsion competition will begin for each Team at the time of deployment of their respective cubesats, and ends 365 days after their respective launch dates.
  • NASA will award the following Lunar Propulsion Competition prize: a prize of $1,500,000 will be divided equally between all teams that establish a verifiable lunar orbit.
  • During the competition period entrants will acquire as much error-free data as they can from their cubesat within single continuous 30-minute periods, and as much error-free data as they can within any 28-day period.
  • The competitor’s best data returns may be updated periodically on the Centennial Challenge website.
  • NASA will award the following Lunar Communication Competition prizes:
  • 1.$250,000 will be awarded to the team that receives the largest cumulative volume of error-free data from their Cubesat over their best 30-minute period from lunar orbit before the end of competition
  • $750,000 will be awarded to the team that receives the largest cumulative volume of error free data from their cubesat over their best contiguous 28 day period from lunar orbit before the end of competition.
  • $500,000 will be awarded to the team that receives the very last, error-free, 1024-bit data block from their cubesat from lunar orbit at least 28 days after the start of the competition for their cubesat and before the end of the competition.

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