NASA has announced a mini-satellite design competition that will see entrants competing for $5 million in prize money and a chance to have their winning satellite flown to the moon by the space agency.

The prize purse in the Cube Quest Challenge is the largest cash prize the agency has ever offered, a NASA release said.

The objective of the challenge is to design, build and deliver to NASA a flight-qualified small satellite, or CubeSat capable of advanced in the vicinity of our moon and in the space beyond.

"NASA's Cube Quest Challenge will engage teams in the development of the new technologies that will advance the state of the art of CubeSats and demonstrate their capabilities as viable deep space explorers," says Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

"Prize competitions like this engage the general public and directly contribute to NASA's goals while serving as a tool for open innovation."

The winning CubeSat will be launched as a secondary payload on the first integrated flight of NASA's Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

The competition consists of three separate challenges, with the prize purse divided between them.

  • Four Ground Tournaments to determine which entries are capable of flying on the initial SLS flight; prize of $500,000.
  • A Lunar Derby prize for establishing the capability to put a CubeSat into a stable orbit around the moon and demonstrating durability and communication while there; prize of $3 million.
  • A Deep Space Derby for demonstrating CubeSat durability and communication at distances up to10 times beyond that of the moon (nearly 2.5 million miles); prize of $1.5 million.

The three competitions together will contribute to opening exploration of deep space to non-government spacecraft, NASA officials say.

"Cube Quest is an important competition for the agency as well as the commercial space sector," says Eric Eberly, deputy program manager for Centennial Challenges at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

"If we can produce capabilities usually associated with larger spacecraft in the much smaller platform of CubeSats, a dramatic improvement in the affordability of space missions will result, greatly increasing science and research possibilities."

NASA has held 24 Centennial Challenges -- intended to push progress in various areas of aerospace technology and encourage a broad participation in research and development in aerospace -- since 2005.

The space agency has awarded challenge-winning teams around $6 million.

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