Image: Climber competition
One contest would be for climbing robots powered from the ground by light beams alone, as shown in this artwork.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 3/24/2005 2:06:15 AM ET 2005-03-24T07:06:15

Borrowing a page from the playbook for the X Prize spaceship competition, NASA has set aside $400,000 over the next two years for competitions to encourage the development of wireless power transmission systems and super-strong tethers.

The Beam Power Challenge and the Tether Challenge, announced here Wednesday, are the first two of NASA's Centennial Challenges, which aim to provide incentives for technological achievements that could be applied to future space exploration.

Although the space agency will put up the prize money, the contests will be administered by the Spaceward Foundation, a California-based group that started planning the contests last year.

"We are thrilled with our partnership with NASA, and we're excited to take the Tether and Beam Power challenges to the next level," said Meekk Shelef, president of the Spaceward Foundation.

Shelef and her colleagues at the foundation hope the contests will advance the concept of a space elevator, which proposes using climbing robots powered by light beams to carry payloads into outer space. Such elevators would travel on tethers extending tens of thousands of miles above the surface of the Earth. If feasible, such a system could dramatically reduce the cost of access to space.

But Brant Sponberg, program manager for the Centennial Challenges, emphasized that NASA was interested in power-beaming and high-strength-to-weight materials rather than the bigger, more speculative space-elevator concept.

"Even if no one builds a space elevator or solar power satellites, it's still of benefit to NASA," he told at the Flight School conference in Scottsdale.

In the most common power-beaming scenario, energy in the form of light or microwaves is transmitted through space from a power source to remote receivers, where photoelectric cells convert the light energy into electricity. NASA has already tested one such system for keeping unmanned air vehicles aloft, and the technology might come in handy for long-duration aerial reconnaissance missions on Mars. The concept also be used for distributing power from, say, a nuclear power station on the moon or Mars to other outposts.

"We can't take terrestrial power grids to other worlds," Sponberg explained.

As for the tethers, Sponberg said the same super-strong materials could be adapted to make next-generation spacecraft lighter and more resilient. "You can imagine layers of carbon nanotubes being laid down, much like we do with composites today — and that's what we would take away," he said.

NASA is due to announce still more Centennial Challenges in the next few weeks, focusing on other technology areas, Sponberg said.

How the contests would work
Spaceward's Ben Shelef said the foundation hoped to present this year's contest by October in Mountain View, Calif. About 15 teams, mostly from universities, already have signed up to compete.

The Beam Power Challenge requires teams to build a robot climber and power-receiving system capable of raising 55 pounds (25 kilograms) up a 164-foot (50-meter) cable.

For this year's contest, power would be beamed to the climber from a 10-kilowatt searchlight at the bottom of the cable, Ben Shelef said. Contestants would get three tries to send the climber up the cable in three minutes or less, and the climber that carries the most mass under those conditions would win a $50,000 prize, Sponberg said.

Next year, the teams would have to build not only the climber and receiver, but also the power source — for example, a laser or a microwave transmitter, Sponberg said. A $100,000 first prize, as well as a $40,000 second prize and $10,000 third prize, would be offered in 2006.

'March Madness' for geeks
The Tether Challenge requires teams to create tethers of a standard length, width and weight. The tethers would be paired against each other in a single-elimination tournament to see how much tension they take until one of them breaks.

"It's kinda like March Madness," Sponberg explained of the tether matchoff. "It's the NCAA tourney for materials geeks."

In the end, the winning tether would have to handle at least 50 percent more tension than a reference sample that Sponberg called the "house tether." This year, if the top team's creation beats the house tether by that much, the team would win $50,000 and their tether would likely become the standard to beat the following year..

The following year, NASA would boost the prizes for tethers to $100,000 for first, $40,000 for second and $10,000 for third, Sponberg said.

Both contests would allow the competing teams to retain intellectual property rights and the winners may well be courted by NASA for future contracts. However, Sponberg said the Centennial Challenges program would not be involved in those decisions.

"The purpose of my program is to see if there are neat technologies out there that are of use to other NASA programs," he said.

Removing the 'giggle factor'
NASA's Centennial Challenges are named in honor of the Wright Brothers centennial but also continue a tradition of technological contests as old as the Longitude Prize, awarded in 1773 to clockmaker John Harrison, and as fresh as the $10 million Ansari X Prize, won last autumn by the team behind the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

"For more than 200 years, prizes have played a key role in spurring new achievements in science, technology, engineering and exploration," Craig Steidle, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, said in a statement. "Centennial Challenges will use prizes to help make the Vision for Space Exploration a reality."

Spaceward's Meekk Shelef gave credit to NASA for looking beyond the "giggle factor" and embracing technologies associated with the space-elevator concept.

Space-elevator researcher Brad Edwards, president of Carbon Designs as well as a member of Spaceward's board, said his company may well compete in the tether contest even though it may mean distancing himself from the foundation to do so.

"It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be fun," Edwards said.

More contests to come
Sponberg said the two Spaceward contests were announced first simply because NASA wanted to move ahead quickly with some of the smaller "Alliance" challenges, in which the space agency partners with another organization. He said other Alliance-level challenges would be announced in the next few weeks, having to do with autonomous, unmanned air vehicles; methods to convert lunar-type materials into useful resources; and "bioastronautics" — that is, devices that would make an astronaut's job easier.

Sponberg also listed other technologies that may become the focus of future Centennial Challenges, once the rules were settled:

  • Aerocapture demonstrations.
  • Micro re-entry vehicles.
  • Robotic lunar soft landers.
  • Station-keeping solar sails.
  • Robotic triathlon.
  • Human-robotic analog research campaigns.
  • Autonomous drills.
  • Lunar all-terrain vehicles.
  • Precision landers.
  • Telerobotic construction.
  • Power-storage breakthroughs.
  • Radiation-shield breakthroughs.

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