Several tiny CubeSat satellites are shown in this image photographed by an Expedition 33 crew member on the International Space Station on 4 October 2012. The satellites were released outside the Kibo laboratory using a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer attached to the Japanese module's robotic arm. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide, flight engineer, set up the satellite deployment gear inside the laboratory and placed it in the Kibo airlock. The Japanese robotic arm then grappled the deployment system and its satellites from the airlock for deployment. A portion of the station's solar array panels and a blue and white part of the earth provide the backdrop for the scene.

Taking the Cube Quest Challenge

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.

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker and tinkerer. 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.

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