Taking the Cube Quest Challenge

Taking the Cube Quest Challenge
Student-built cubesats are released from the international space station's Kibo module. Credit: NASA
Student-built CubeSats released from the International Space Station’s Kibo module. Credit: NASA

The NASA Centennial Challenges Program is the agency’s flagship program of technology prize competitions—from lunar landers, to astronaut gloves, to airships. Back in 2011 we even partnered with NASA to develop inexpensive science kits for suborbital flights for the MAKE Space Challenge.

Amongst the latest challenge announcements from the agency is the Cube Quest Challenge which offers a total of $5 million to teams that can design, build, and deliver small spacecraft capable of operating near and beyond the moon. The Challenge is designed to encourage development of technology to allow deep space exploration using small spacecraft—like CubeSats.

I think this challenge will be won by someone reading this post, by a maker. Now, this isn’t as crazy as it sounds, it wouldn’t be the first time a maker has entered, and won, a NASA challenge—back in 2007 Peter Homer, a maker from Maine, claimed the first payout of NASA’s astronaut glove challenge.

The Cube Quest Challenge will begin next year with a series of qualifying ground tournaments and prizes worth $500k. Successful teams will be offered a secondary payload slot on NASA’s EM-1 mission—the first planned launch of their new SLS launcher, and the second uncrewed test of the Orion crew vehicle—currently planned for 2018.

For those teams that make it on to the next stage of the challenge—and if you don’t get a free ride there’s a mechanism in place to fund your own launch on a commercial provider—the competing CubeSats will be inserted into a trans-lunar trajectory ready for a lunar derby. A further $3 million in prizes is up for grabs in this stage of the challenge for teams that can demonstrate the ability to place their CubeSat in a stable lunar orbit.

The final stage of the challenge is a deep space derby, taking place out around 2.5 million miles—that’s ten times the distance from the Earth to the Moon—with a further $1.5 million in prize money for teams that can manoeuvre and communicate with their spacecraft out in deep space.

If you’re interested in the Challenge your journey into lunar orbit begins at Moffett Field in January with a summit at NASA Ames to introduce the challenge, and encourage prospective competitors to self-organise into teams.

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Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer, who is spending a lot of his time thinking about the Internet of Things. In the past he has mesh networked the Moscone Center, caused a U.S. Senate hearing, and contributed to the detection of what was—at the time—the most distant object yet discovered.

View more articles by Alasdair Allan


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