NASA offers $5 million in contests for robots, satellites

According to NASA, Centennial Challenges are aimed at individuals, groups and companies outside the traditional aerospace industry. Unlike most contracts or grants, awards are only made after teams demonstrate the success of their projects. The events typically have live audiences and are also televised or broadcast over the Internet.

There are currently three Centennial Challenge under way: an Aug. 13 contest in Seattle to find a material 50 percent stronger than the strongest commercially available, a fall contest where teams must transmit power to a device using a laser beam so it can climb a half-mile vertical cable, and a July 2011 contest for which teams must design an aircraft that can fly 200 miles in less than two hours using less than a gallon of gasoline (or its energy equivalent) per passenger.

The three new challenges are also designed to push the limits of current technological capabilities. The first challenges teams to place a small satellite into Earth orbit twice in one week, for a prize of two million dollars. The goal is to drive innovation in low-cost commercial satellite technology.

The second challenge is to develop a solar-powered vehicle that can operate in darkness using stored energy. The prize is $1.5 million and the idea is to stimulate energy storage innovations that can be used either for electric vehicles or devices designed to travel in space.

The final challenge is to create a robot that collects geological samples from diverse terrain without any human control. The areas of focus are automatic navigation and robotic control and the prize is $1.5 million.

NASA is planning to partner with nonprofit organizations to manage each of the three new competitions. Proposals from organizations interested in partnering with NASA are due by Sept. 13. Selection of partner organizations is expected by Oct. 8. NASA will announce challenge rules and other details later this year.