NASA sets huge $5M cubesat competition

$5 million purse is NASA’s largest Centennial Challenge offering to date

NASA this week opened what it called its largest ever prize purse – the Cube Quest Challenge which will offer a package worth $5 million for competitors to build unique propulsion and communications technologies for small, inexpensive satellite systems known as cubesats.

When it first talked about offering a cubesat challenge in June, NASA said it wanted to focus on building better communications and propulsion technologies for the cube-shaped satellites are typically about four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds.

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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.  

dellingr artist concept NASA

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.

Challenge objectives include designing, building and delivering flight-qualified, small satellites capable of advanced operations near and beyond the moon, NASA said.

 The challenge and prize purse are divided into three major areas:

  • Ground Tournaments: $500,000 in the four qualifying ground tournaments to determine who will have the ability to fly on the first SLS flight;
  • Lunar Derby: $1.5 million for demonstrating communication and CubeSat durability at a distance greater than almost 2.5 million miles (4,000,000 km), 10 times the distance from the Earth to the moon; and
  • Deep Space Derby: $3 million for demonstrating the ability to place a Cubesat in a stable lunar orbit and demonstrate communication and durability near the moon.

 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.  

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