NASA considering lunar CubeSat prize competitions

NASA is considering two new prize competitions that would involve sending CubeSat-class spacecraft into cislunar space and beyond, perhaps on the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS). NASA’s Centennial Challenges program issued a Request for Information (RFI) on Monday for two new potential prize competitions, seeking input from the public over the next month as the agency refines the rules and decides whether to proceed.

The CubeSat Lunar Propulsion and Communications Challenge would offer up to $3 million to competitors that meet or exceed technical requirements while in lunar orbit. Half of that prize money is planned for the propulsion phase, where the CubeSat would have to demonstrate maintaining an orbit around the Moon of between 300 and 10,000 kilometers. The other half is for the communications challenge, where the CubeSats would compete to return the most error-free blocks of data from lunar orbit.

The CubeSat Deep Space Communications Challenge would provide up to $1.5 million for testing CubeSat communications beyond lunar orbit. The challenge would include several prizes, ranging from $250,000 to $750,000 each, for the CubeSat that provides the most data in a 30-minute period, the most data overall, the team that receives the last error-free data block from a minimum distance of 4,000,000 kilometers (about ten times the distance to the Moon) and the team that receives data from the greatest distance overall.

In addition to the in-space prize competitions, NASA is planning a series of ground qualification challenges that would provide an additional $1 million in prizes. In addition, CubeSats that pass those qualification tests would be eligible to fly on the first launch of the SLS, designated Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), slated for launch in late 2017. Competitors, though, would also be allowed to arrange their own launch services.

The purpose of the prize is to help mature two key technologies—communications and propulsion—that could enable CubeSat-class spacecraft to take on more demanding missions beyond Earth orbit, including, perhaps, supporting NASA exploration missions. “These two challenges seek to solve these problems and, by demonstrating fully functional spacecraft near the moon and beyond, establish precedent for all the subsystems necessary for deep-space exploration with small spacecraft,” the RFI states.

The RFI remains open for comments through July 11. The RFI mentions several issues NASA is in particular seeking input on, from the technical characteristics of the prize competitions to expressions of interest from potential competitors.

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