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Many makers dream of building their own spacecraft to explore the cosmos. NASA is gearing up to help makers fulfill these dreams by first asking the community the fundamentals: What are the best incentives for makers to build, fly, and communicate with small satellites in deep space?

This isn’t the first time private citizens have been offered a chance to compete this far from home. Since 2007, the Google Lunar X-Prize has inspired contestants to try landing the first private rover on the moon. However, early criticisms that the GLXP is too much of a technical challenge to be winnable may be ringing true in light of the diminishing number of participants. Not surprising given that the well-funded, Chinese government-backed “Yutu” rover experienced difficulties shortly after its first harsh lunar night.

However, NASA’s approach to engage makers seems to be more pragmatic in that it separately tackles two of the biggest problems with deep space exploration: communications and propulsion systems. According to the Agency’s recently released “Request for Information:”

NASA is considering initiating two challenges to incentivize development of deep space science and exploration capabilities for small spacecraft, including CubeSats, with the intention of broadening the national capability to support future exploration architectures.

The first challenge will focus on finding innovative solutions to deep space communications with small spacecraft, while the second focuses on primary propulsion for small spacecraft. Together, these challenges are expected to contribute to opening deep space exploration to non-government spacecraft for the first time.

Some of the proposed prizes would include monetary awards for demonstrating the following milestones for long-range communications systems:

  • Communication Subsystem – Ground Demonstration and Selection for Launch
  • Largest Amount of Data Transmitted from Distance of Lunar Orbit
  • Last CubeSat Standing (Farthest CubeSat Transmission to Earth)

and for propulsion systems:

  • Propulsion Subsystem Ground Demonstration and Selection for Launch
  • First CubeSat to Achieve Lunar Orbit

Initial timeframes for these challenges start with an anticipated draft release of rules in late April, with possible review of competitors’ submissions by the end of 2014. CubeSat launches could be scheduled as early as the December 2017 as secondary payloads aboard NASA’s Orion and Space Launch System vehicles.

Although the official comment period has ended, program manager Dr. Larry Cooper is still very interested in hearing from you. Read the details in the RFI at http://go.usa.gov/BBSj and send Dr. Cooper an email at [email protected]; use Deep Space Spacecraft Challenges on the Subject line.

Matthew F. Reyes

Founder of Exploration Solutions, Inc, distributor of the future in research, education & technology projects. Matthew supports NASA Ames Research Center and others in Silicon Valley as an independent contractor. Matthew is an occasional contributor to Make Magazine and a guest editor for #DIYSpaceWeek


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