NASA Calls to the Private Sector Again With Three New Centennial Challenges

How long has your nano-satellite prototype been sitting out in the hallway collecting junk mail on top of it? Send it in to NASA already, for chrissakes. Their decrepit rust buckets are blowing up faster than a bag of M-80s on a bored Friday night.

NASA is so disgusted with themselves right now that they announced three new contests calling for student teams, private companies, and nonprofits to submit solutions to their problems. Chief NASA technologist Bobby Braun pawns The Centennial Challenge an "attempt to foster technology competitiveness, new industries and innovation across America."

The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is the most lucrative of three prizes, offering a total of $2 million to anyone who can successfully launch a small satellite into orbit two times in a week. The Night Rover Challenge offers $1.5 million to anyone who can design an operational surface exploration vehicle that can run on its own renewable energy source in total darkness on moon-ish terrain. Finally, The Sample Return Robot Challenge tasks contestants to build a robot capable of finding and extracting geological samples without direct control for an additional $1.5 million.

What's in it for competitors — other than the cash? The organizations that win will test-run their prototypes at public events that NASA will publicize with both televised and Internet broadcasts. The deadline for applications is September 13th of this year.

The climate remains optimal for prizes like this one to proliferate as the aeronautics industry privatizes at an alarming rate. NASA gave $1.1 billion to Boeing, Space X, and Sierra Nevada Corp. earlier this month for contracts on shuttling personnel and supplies to the International Space Station over the next five years. Ideally, they will put some money aside to get their own suicidally depressed space landers into talk therapy.

Meanwhile, the FAA (as in the agency otherwise responsible for enforcing regulations on commercial space flight) released a 100-page white paper this month that estimates a healthy $600 million demand over the next decade for small, sub-orbital vehicles like the ones for which NASA's Centennial Challenge solicits designs.