NASA is in the business of giving small-time scientists and engineers opportunities: its small business grants, open data initiatives and other efforts are meant to empower the high school kid or hobbyist who could be the next Wernher von Braun. But in the Cube Quest Challenge, for the first time ever, NASA is enabling amateur spacecraft builders to participate in a mission to deep space.
Three teams have been selected from an initial pool of over a hundred (two-thirds of which were from universities) to hitch a ride on NASA’s Exploration Mission-1, the maiden voyage of the new Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. Their Cubesats, no larger than a shoebox, will be carried as cargo and then given a clear shot at the moon and beyond. Millions of dollars in prizes await those craft capable enough to earn them.
“In the Cube Quest challenge we’re challenging competitors to take their cubesat into deep space, where no cube sat has gone before,” said James Cockrell, who’s been running the challenge to NASA for about two years now. We had a chance to talk with him during a visit to NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View.
“That means there’s all kinds of new challenges,” he continued. “They’ve got to do navigation without GPS, without the Earth’s magnetic field. If you get into a lunar orbit, there’s no compass. All this has to be autonomous, so our developers are having to do subystems that are going to work in ways cubesats to date haven’t.”
There are two main challenges: the lunar derby and the deep space derby. In the first, craft must achieve a stable lunar orbit and establish communications with Earth. In the second, craft must demonstrate data transmission from 4 million kilometers (about 2.5 million miles) out — that’s more than 10 times the distance to the moon, for reference.
Beyond some basic standards (they only get a certain amount of space, and things must be up to code), how the teams pursue the challenges is up to them.
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