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Cosmic Competition

For fresh ideas, NASA is turning to students, hobbyists, and hackers.

The $10 million Ansari X Prize competition, which so spectacularly spurred the development of commercial space flight, ended last year; but now, NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate has jumped into the game of offering prizes for technology innovation. So far, three Centennial Challenges have been announced. Brant Sponberg is the program’s manager.

You’ve just announced the latest competition – lunar oxygen?
It’s called Moon ROx – Moon Regolith Oxygen Challenge. Contestants have eight hours to produce five kilograms of oxygen from lunar soil. We know how to do it, but we need to get the efficiencies to the point where it’s practical.

Where exactly are contestants getting the lunar soil?
The competition uses a simulant. It’s made from volcanic ash, to simulate the chemical composition of what you’d find on the Moon. A gentleman in Texas produces it.

Another prize is for “beam power.” What’s that?
You beam power from a transmitter to a receiver, which is attached to a little crawling robot. The winner is the crawler that lifts the most mass a given distance within a certain amount of time.

What’s the point of that?
Power-supply cables are heavy. On the Moon, you could beam power from, say, a small nuclear reactor or a solar collector farm to a rover or an astronaut habitat.

And the tether challenge?
Our partner on that is the Spaceward Foundation. They’re focused on a pretty futuristic concept, space elevators. You put a satellite up as a counterweight, then send a tether down to the Earth’s surface. The elevators climb up and down.

Is building something like that really on the drawing boards?
NASA has no current plans, but we are very interested in breakthrough materials. A 60,000-mile tether needs to be both strong and very lightweight. So the contest is a $50,000 annual prize for the highest strength-to-weight ratio, provided the test sample beats the previous year’s winner by at least 50 percent.

Your biggest prizes are $250,000 each. That’s a long ways from the X Prize.
There’s a legal cap on federal agencies’ offering prizes larger than that. Our request for special authority to lift that is working its way through the congressional queue. There’s $10 million earmarked for challenges in our latest budget, so hopefully you’ll see some bigger prizes.

What would it take to win a big one?
A lunar robotic lander. If someone can, say, soft-land 10 kilograms on the Moon.

Actually get it there?
Actually get it to the Moon, yes. In today’s dollars, $10 million, $20 million, even $30 million for a successful demonstration would be almost an order-of-magnitude improvement over similar missions that we ran back in the 1960s.

A presidential commission talked about offering a $1 billion prize for getting humans to the Moon.
A billion dollars is probably a bit much. But competitions let us reach innovators who would never think of applying to NASA for a grant or a contract – folks who don’t like to deal with the government; hobbyists or student teams; the kid who’s currently spending his time hacking websites.

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