Thursday, June 16, 2011

Challenges of the Century from NASA

Earlier this week we talked about the Ansari X Prize Foundation and the success they've had driving innovation with incentive competitions.  Prizes challenged Lindbergh to cross the Atlantic, inspired SpaceShip One to send the first humans into space on a privately-funded vehicle, and continues to inspire innovative moon landers and oil cleanups.  The U.S. government and NASA have also seen these successes and are hoping to use similar incentives for additional aerospace advances.  So today let's look at NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

NASA has been running their flagship Challenge program since 2005.  Previous contests developed new spacesuit glove designs and extracted oxygen from artificial moon rocks.  Since those successes the program has expanded to new frontiers, often upping the ante by increasing the difficulty (and prize money) after each year's competition.  So the winning design for one year must be constantly improved to stay competitive and keep moving the technology forward.

Below are some of the current and future competitions NASA is holding for their Centennial Challenge program.  There are actually many other (smaller) competitions NASA runs that are also open to the public and accessible to citizen scientists, but I wanted to start with the big boys first.  The rest we'll cover in a future post about, the US government's central web site for competitions from many different agencies.  So let's get down to it!

  • Green Flight: Next month (July 10-17, 2011), nine teams will compete for a $1.65 million prize purse for the most fuel efficient plane that can fly over 200 miles in less than two hours while using less than one gallon of gas per occupant.  Watch here for updates on how they do and who wins the big prize.
  • Stronger Tether: This ongoing challenge has watched teams compete four times since 2007 with none claiming the prize for the strongest woven carbon nano-tube tether.  But hope springs eternal and competition is set yet again for the Space Elevator Games on August 13, 2011.
  • Power Beaming: This challenge has been successfully completed when last year a team won $900,000 for designing a machine to climb one kilometer up a tether powered only by beamed laser light.  But this success just raised the bar for the next ambitious step, a "power beaming to lunar rover" competition being designed for next year.
  • Sample Return Robot: A $1.5 million competition is being designed for building a robotic retriever that can find pre-hidden "rocks" in a simulated moon landscape and successfully return them to a central point.  Final rules have not yet been published and a competition date has not been set, but stay tuned as this project should be finalized soon.
  • Nano-Satellite Launch: A $2 million competition for a privately-funded team to launch a 1 kilogram mass (measuring 10cm x 10cm x 11cm) into orbit and have it circle the Earth at least once.  Planning is still in the early stages for this project but keep watching this space as the rules become clearer.
  • Night Rover:   A $1.5 million competition for building a robotic rover that can collect energy during from the sun during the day, store the energy, and compete for longest night-time driving with that stored energy.  Planning is also in the early stages for this competition but more details are expected in the near future.
All these programs are not just opportunities for citizen scientists to strut their stuff, but also for NASA to learn from the public and better engage the community.  So let's support these important efforts and give them the best our ingenuity has to offer.