Sam Ortega, Program Manager, NASA Centennial Challenges, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL

NTB: What other contests and challenges are in the works?

Ortega: We have some coming up for robotics. One is a sample return robot: an autonomous robot that’s being done by Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They’ll be doing that in June of this year. The idea of autonomous control: Instead of having someone on the ground with a 90-second delay trying to control a robot on a planet or maybe on a moon, you want to have the ability to just drop the robot, and have it go off by itself autonomously, maneuver around, not get stuck anywhere or fall over, and find samples. It knows already, by the algorithms in its software, what is an important sample and what is not an important sample. The robot can then collect it, come back to a designated point, and then you can fly it back home. All that would be done autonomously. 

The challenge we have out there is creating the basic algorithms to establish an autonomous robot for it to move around a very large area, avoid the obstacles, collect known samples, and discern whether something is important.  Obviously, we’re doing it on the Earth. In an open area, if there’s a pine cone, we know the pine cone is natural, exists here, and we don’t need that, but if the robot needs to grab something else, a block of aluminum with something etched on it, for example, it could say, “Yes, that’s a sample of interest,” store it, and bring it back. That competition has a total prize purse of $1.5 million.

 We also have the Night Rover competition. Right now, if we send a robot to the moon, it operates in 14 days of daylight and 14 days of darkness. We would have to shut down operations for 14 days and not do anything at night because we don’t have the power systems to run the robot at night. We want to try and solve that problem and have somebody develop a power system — whether it be a battery, a power cell, a gel battery, a flywheel — and be able to run the robot for 14 days of darkness, and run it for 14 days of daylight non-stop. We want to see if we can develop and improve that power source technology level. Obviously that has applications all over the place. If you can reduce the weight and size of a battery, it will be helpful for green aviation, the automobile industry, or anybody that’s using electric power sources.

We have some other challenges that are related to space elevator technology, strong tethers, and power binning, which is the wireless transmission of power. We have another one that we’re going to be starting here very shortly called the Nanosat Launcher Challenge. There’s a huge business base for micro-satellites and cubesats: little satellites that weigh a kilogram, 5 kilograms, 10 kilograms, but have no dedicated launch platform to put those into orbit. We’re running a challenge for the first team to develop a rocket that can launch anything greater than a kg for a single orbit.

NTB: What would you say is the state of aviation now? How much work still needs to be done from an efficiency standpoint?

Ortega: In the US, I think there’s minimal effort being done right now for general aviation efficiency improvements. Right now, I think Boeing has been doing some significant work with their development for larger aircraft efficiency improvements, but we have a long way to go. There are other countries out there that are further advanced in their efficiency airplane design and development. It would be great to build momentum and to start pushing to become the leaders for efficient aviation.

 Want to learn more about upcoming NASA Centennial Challenges?  For more information, contact Janet Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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