It's been almost a year and a half since my last blog post. I have some time today so I thought I'd give an update on the NASA Centennial Challenges, and also give my opinions on them. NASA has issued a NASA Request for Information on some potential new challenges and a new format for some of the challenges. The potential new challenges listed in the RFI are:
Europa Ice Challenge: Demonstrate innovative, scalable solutions to penetrate a very thick, low-temperature, surface ice layer found on Europa ... An analogous Earth environment such as a polar region ice sheet may serve as a stage for the Challenge Competition ...
Cache Capture Challenge: ... The Challenge would advance our understanding of a potential capture scenario that involves a Mars surface material cache placed in Mars orbit that must be recovered ... a ground demonstration would utilize a velodrome track to simulate the constraints of orbital mechanics. ...
Aerial Robotic Explorers: Demonstrate a miniature (flying insect scale) sensor package able to sense and transmit data and fly for the greatest endurance possible at Mars surface conditions. ...
competitors would fly within a large vacuum chamber at simulated mars atmospheric conditions ...
Earth Entry Vehicle Landing Shock Attenuation: ... The capsules and their sample volume containers would drop from a significant altitude with landing loads within the sample container measured upon impact with the ground. ...
Mission Architecture Studies: ... Challenge teams would develop, analyze and prototype concepts for challenging future NASA missions such as a Human Mission to Mars or Europa Lander Mission. Mission requirements provided by NASA would establish constraints, such as launch vehicles or number of astronauts, and detailed mission objectives. ... Selection of Challenge winners would rely upon a highest overall score based on such parameters as technical feasibility, assessed affordability, accuracy of analysis, and inventiveness of concept and approach.
Here are some details on the proposed new format for some challenges:
... Domestic institutions of higher education would be able to submit proposals for funded support of their participation in the challenge under the funded track. Unsuccessful proposers to the funded track could still participate in the unfunded open track. Additionally, instead of a first-to-demonstrate format the new challenge structure would utilize a repetitive best-performer format. The Challenge would operate on a yearly basis for 3 to 4 years. Each year of the competition both funded and unfunded track competitors would compete for the best performance with the winner in each year awarded part of the total purse. ...
Here is a presentation New Challenge Model to Grow University Participation (PDF) that gives more details on the thought process behind the new proposal. In addition to the above proposed challenges, this mentions a Micro Lander Challenge that sounds like a version of the Lunar Lander Challenge for smaller vehicles, a Precision Lander Challenge, a Venus Thermal Challenge, and a Mars Ascent Vehicle Challenge that appears to address another part of Mars Sample Return. The funding for university teams would be for 5-10 teams at about $100-200K each, which is about the typical amount of the actual prize purse for past Centennial Challenges.
Before giving my comments on the new proposals, let me provide some context. In the early years, Centennial Challenges held a larger number of prizes that grew to roughly the $1-2M level per competition as the challenges grew in difficulty over the years. These included the Lunar Lander, Power Beaming, Strong Tether, Astronaut Glove, MoonROx ISRU, Regolith Excavation, and Green Flight Challenges. As these competitions expired or were won, the number of challenges gradually decreased. The next wave of challenges, the Lunar Night Rover, Sample Return Robot, and Nanosat Launch Vehicle challenges promised to revive the dwindling Centennial Challenges portfolio, but for the most part these fizzled out as the original set faded away, and only the Sample Return Robot challenge remained, sort of following the Regolith Excavation Challenge as a robotics challenge. The UAS Airspace Challenge is also now filling in the Aeronautics niche vacated by the Green Flight Challenge. Centennial Challenges has indicated some interest in funding in-space beyond LEO cubesat challenges related to propulsion and communication.
Now here are my opinions. Take them with a grain of salt, since lately I haven't been following the challenges nearly as closely as I used to. First, I do think Centennial Challenges should have a broad portfolio of technology prizes. I think robotics is an excellent domain for a challenge, and Aeronautics is another. Cubesats are appropriate, given their relatively low cost allowing small teams to participate and Cubesats' need for improved capabilities. Actually holding cubesat competitions in space is a compelling idea.
However, the current number of active challenges (2) being held is sad. Really, at a minimum there should be a half dozen or so around the size of the original set of challenges, a couple more ambitious
ones, and perhaps one "flagship" challenge in the $10-30M range. It's absurd that NASA hasn't been able to (or tried to) fund challenges at this level when it's had so many years to accumulate a bank account for prize purses. Even without this level of funding, Centennial Challenges needs to get its foot in the door and fund a few challenges at a lesser level (e.g.: $250,000 - $500,000) if it can't manage higher budget levels. If needed, let NASA fund a "base" prize and expect the Allied Organization running the prizes to raise more prize purse funds, or fund an initial "easy" version of a challenge at a more affordable level and try to go to the next prize level if the initial round succeeds.
My gut feeling about the content of the 5 proposed competitions is that the first 4 are too oriented towards planetary science missions, and in particular extremely difficult far-future flagship planetary science missions, Mars Sample Return and Europa Lander, both of which could only be considered after an earlier round of flagship missions to gather Mars samples in Mars 2020 and map Europa in detail in something like Europa Clipper. The Mars flying sensor challenge is also oriented towards far-future planetary science technology. NASA Planetary Science is my favorite NASA area, but I think Centennial Challenge subject matter should be distributed more evenly among NASA's project areas and also among industry areas. Where are the challenges related to astrophysics, Earth science,
heliophysics, human spaceflight, and so on? Where are the challenges that take advantage of the ISS (which needs more customers)? Where are the challenges that dovetail with the NewSpace movement, such as the commercial suborbital RLV aspirations that started the original Ansari X PRIZE that came before NASA Centennial Challenges? Where are the challenges that address the needs of the broader commercial space industry, or of NOAA, DOD, etc? If Planetary Science is to be the main funding area, why pick topics that are so "out there" in terms of missions that would actually happen any time soon?
As for the Mission Architecture Studies challenge, I don't have anything against such "paper/presentation" challenges. However, my gut feeling is that Centennial Challenges should be for technology demonstrations with clear-cut measurable results that limit the scope of judge opinions. Architecture Studies challenges probably belong in a different category, probably with lower prize amounts.
On the proposed format changes to allow funding of University teams, I would rather see more "pure/fair" competitions without funding some of the teams. It seems like Centennial Challenges
hasn't had enough funding to even run a minimal portfolio of challenges, so I'd first want a basic set of a half dozen or so regular challenges with a level playing field for all teams funded before trying different variants. One way to increase university involvement is to have concurrent or follow-on challenges similar to the "main" Centennial Challenge that is strictly for university teams. These might have considerably lower prize values and might also have easier technical requirements than the "main" prize. Of course university teams would still be welcome to compete for the main prizes. Examples include the Micro Lander Challenge mentioned above and the Lunabotics/Robotic Mining challenges that followed the Regolith Excavation Challenge.
Here's how I might structure Centennial Challenges if presented with a small but viable budget:
Sample Return Robot Challenge (existing) - replaced with another robotics/space themed challenge after this is won or expired. Ideally, also start a similar student-level challenge similar to how Regolith Excavation was replaced with Lunabotics / Robotic Mining challenges.
UAS Airspace Challenge (existing) - replaced with another aeronautics themed challenge after this is won or expired.
Cubesat Challenge (similar to proposed BLEO propulsion/communication challenges) - replaced with another in-space Cubesat challenge after this is won or expired.
Rocketry Challenge - This might take the VTVL Lunar Lander challenge to the "next level". It might be another variant of the Nanosat Launch Challenge. It might involve a reusable sounding rocket demonstration. It might involve taking the Ansari X PRIZE to the "next level". It might involve use of vehicles like the suborbital RLVs currently in development. The point is that since the days of the Ansari X PRIZE and the Northrup Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, small-team rocketry has been the core of space prize interest, and Centennial Challenges is crippled if it doesn't engage this community.
Planetary Science Technology Challenge - Pick any 1 of the current set of proposed planetary science themed challenges (Europa Ice, Cache Capture, Aerial Robotics, and Earth Entry Vehicle Landing Shock Attenuation). As each one is won or expired, then continue to the next one. Only do more than 1 at a time if the prizes purses are low enough to not hamper the other areas or if some external source (NASA Planetary Science, Planetary Society, etc) is helping with the funding.
Asteroid Challenge - The Asteroid Redirect Mission is questionable, but many of its pieces taken as separate things (asteroid search, asteroid science, commercial asteroid interest, human spaceflight missions to asteroids, planetary defense, asteroid ISRU, SEP technology demonstration) are valuable. A Centennial Challenge with appropriate funding should ride the (likely temporary) ARM wave and address an area like NEO search, characterizing a NEO with a small spacecraft, retrieving tiny samples of a NEO on a budget, or some similar task. These will still have value even if the ARM fades away.
Lunar Surface Challenge - This would in some way work with the Google Lunar X PRIZE. It might encourage additional capabilities beyond the initial GLXP. It might encourage less ambitious lunar surface tasks that could get a ride (at a price) along with a GLXP team.
ISS Based Challenge - This challenge would involve use of the ISS. It might be a challenge that is launched from the ISS, like a Micro-Reentry Vehicle that returns a small payload to Earth, or a Cubesat. It might involve a payload that is deployed to the exterior of the ISS. It might involve adding capabilities to the ISS. It might stay with an ISS commercial cargo or crew spacecraft. One possibility would be for the challenge to involve instruments of interest to Earth observation science, astrophysics, or heliophysics on the ISS itself, on an ISS-deployed Cubesat, or on a visiting vehicle. Another possibility would be for the competition to address some aspect of HSF technology such as ECLSS.
This list of Centennial Challenges still prominently features the Planetary Science theme. However, the asteroid and lunar surface challenges also could be of interest to "new wave" commercial robotic companies. They could also serve as robotic precursors or partners for near-term (compared to Mars and icy moon) HSF missions. There is also the possibility that these challenges could actually take place in space, or at least lead to use in space in a reasonable time frame, given budding commercial interest in reaching these destinations.