A rover that can roam in darkness could win as much as $1.5 million in NASA prize money.
The night rover competition is one of three new "Centennial Challenges" from the agency. NASA hopes it will encourage the development of technology to explore the moon, where a solar-powered robotic explorer may face as much as two weeks of darkness.
"The motivation is energy storage technology for exploration," says Andrew Petro, Centennial Challenge programme manager at NASA in Washington DC. "We're hoping that a range of different technical solutions are brought forward, and we're not assuming it will only be batteries and photovoltaic arrays."
In addition to the night rover prize, NASA plans to offer another $1.5 million for robots that can automatically find and retrieve samples, and a $2 million purse for teams that can place a small satellite into orbit twice in one week.
Tired of hitch-hiking
Small payloads called CubeSats are an increasingly popular way of delivering everything from solar sail demonstrators to bacteria into orbit. These mini-satellites get their rides into space on rockets carrying bigger loads, and so suffer the uncertainties that all hitch-hikers know.
"When people are launching CubeSats they are riding on as secondary payloads, which means there is no control over the schedule or other requirements placed on them," Petro told New Scientist. "We're hopefully providing an opportunity to develop innovative new ways of launching things that would be very low cost and sustainable."
No detailed rules have yet been set for the new contests. NASA is looking for partners to administer the competitions, which it hopes to select by October, Petro says.
Last year, the programme awarded more than $3.5 million to winners of contests for lunar lander prototypes, better astronaut gloves, lunar soil excavators and space elevators. Competitions in the three ongoing challenges – strong space elevator tethers, power beaming and green aircraft – will begin in August.
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