Two sets of CubeSats fly free from the commercial NanoRacks' launcher aboard the International Space Station. Image redit: NASA

Jan 6, 2015 NASA putting CubeSats to deep-space challenge

Sen—NASA is ramping up its 10-year-old Centennial Challenges program with $5 million in prizes—its biggest purse yet—for CubeSats that can operate in deep space. As a bonus, contenders have a chance to hitch a ride to the Moon during the debut test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.

CubeSats are 10-centimeter boxes built with off-the-shelf components that weigh a few kilograms. Originally devised as an educational project, they quickly became a darling of Earth and space scientists, remote sensing companies and other entities that found themselves with an affordable way to fly instruments and cameras in space.

“CubeSats have done one thing more than anything else—lowered the cost of getting something into orbit from $15 million to $200,000,” said Lars Dryud, head of Earth and Space Science at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“We can solve hard problems in brand new ways,” he said at the American Geophysical Union conference last year.

In addition to private and international efforts, NASA has backed development and/or arranged for rides for more than 100 CubeSats, which can fly as secondary payloads on a variety of rockets as well be deployed from a dedicated CubeSat launcher aboard the International Space Station.

In 2014, more than 75 CubeSats were launched, a record that prompted Science magazine last month to name CubeSats a “Breakthrough of the Year” runner up.

In an attempt to learn if the small satellites have traction beyond Earth, NASA is sponsoring a three-part competition called Cube Quest Challenge, with the overall goal of having contenders design and build flight-ready small satellites that can operate around the Moon and beyond.

The program earmarks $500,000 for four ground-based tournaments, details of which will be discussed at a two-day summit that begins on 7 January at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.  

The second phase of Cube Quest Challenge is the “Lunar Derby,” with $3 million in the offing for teams that can put a CubeSat into a stable lunar orbit and demonstrate that it can communicate. Winners will be determined by which satellite sends the most data in 30 minutes and in 28 days.

The final leg of the contest takes place in deep space, at least 4 million kilometers from Earth, which is roughly 10 times farther away than the Moon. NASA is offering $1.5 million for teams that can demonstrate CubeSat communications and durability, with prizes again awarded for the largest amount of data transmitted in a 30-minute period and over a 28-day period.

CubeSats that last the longest and travel the farthest from Earth also are eligible for prize money.

"Cube Quest is an important competition for the agency as well as the commercial space sector," Eric Eberly, deputy program manager for Centennial Challenges at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a press release.

"If we can produce capabilities usually associated with larger spacecraft in the much smaller platform of CubeSats, a dramatic improvement in the affordability of space missions will result, greatly increasing science and research possibilities,” he said.

As a bonus, teams that participate in at least the final of four ground milestone tournaments could win a ride for their CubeSat aboard NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket currently under development that is expected to debut in 2018. The SLS is intended to put an unmanned Orion capsule into a distant, retrograde orbit around the Moon.

NASA has sponsored 24 Centennial Challenges since the program began in 2005 and awarded $6 million to 16 teams. The areas of focus have ranged from wireless power beaming, to astronaut glove design and lunar landers.