A Tuesday post on the New Space Journal blog reports that NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) concerning two proposed Centennial Challenges that would involve sending cubesats beyond low Earth orbit. One, called the CubeSat Lunar Propulsion and Communications Challenge would involve sending a cubesat to lunar orbit and sending data back to Earth. The other, called the CubeSat Deep Space Communications Challenge would send a cubsat beyond lunar orbit for the same purpose.
The lunar cubsat competition would have a prize purse of $3 million split into two. Half would go to the first cubesat that maintains an orbit around the moon at 300 and 10,000 kilometers. The other half would go to the cubesat that returns the most error free blocks of data from lunar orbit.
The deep space competition would have a $1.5 million purse divided up into a number of milestones. The prizes would range from $250,000 to $750,000 for each milestone. These milestones would include the most data transmitted in a 30-minute period, the most data transmitted overall, the team that receives the last error-free data block from a minimum distance of 4,000,000 kilometers and the team that receives data from the greatest distance overall.
Both competitions would also feature a series of ground milestone with a $1 million purse. The winners would also have their cubesats includes as secondary payloads on the first launch of the Space Launch System, which would send an unpiloted version of the Orion spacecraft around the moon in 2017. Competitors are also allowed to arrange their own launches as needed.
Cubesats are a class of nanosatellites that weight about three pounds and are about the volume of a quart container. The main virtue of cubesats is that they are very cheap to build and to launch. For deep space exploration, many cubesats can be launched at once in swarms to a particular target, such as the moon, in one launch or spread out over several launches. They will allow small organizations such as universities and businesses to conduct space exploration.