New Space and Tech

NASA And Worcester Polytechnic Institute Are Challenge Partners

By Keith Cowing
April 8, 2013
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NASA has signed an agreement with the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) of Worcester, Mass., to manage the Sample Return Robot Challenge, one of the agency’s new Centennial Challenges prize competitions. The challenge will demonstrate how a robot can locate and retrieve geologic samples from varied terrain without human control. This challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies.
Innovations stemming from this challenge are intended to improve NASA’s capability to explore a variety of destinations in space and enhance the nation’s robotic technology for use in industries and applications on Earth.

“WPI has significant experience managing robotic competitions and brings extensive subject matter expertise to the partnership, making them a great choice to manage the Sample Return Robot Challenge,” said Larry Cooper, program executive for NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program at agency headquarters in Washington. “We look forward to WPI overseeing the competition and bringing together innovative teams with creative problem-solving ideas.”

In response to a NASA solicitation, WPI submitted a proposal last fall for this partnership opportunity. The institute will begin detailed preparations for the challenge, publish rules and register competitors. The competition is expected to take place in the spring of 2012. In the Centennial Challenges program, NASA provides the prize purse but the competitions are managed by non-profit organizations that cover the cost of operations through commercial or private sponsorships. This agreement marks the first time NASA has partnered with a university to manage a Centennial Challenge.

The Centennial Challenges seek unconventional solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Competitors have included private companies, student groups and independent inventors working outside the traditional aerospace industry. Unlike contracts or grants, prizes are awarded only after solutions are successfully demonstrated.

There have been 20 Centennial Challenges competition events since 2005. NASA has awarded $4.5 million to 13 different challenge-winning teams.

Last July, NASA announced the Sample Return Robot Challenge along with two other new challenge competitions; the Night Rover Challenge and the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge. NASA hopes to select partnering organizations for these two new challenges in the coming months.

For updates about the Sample Return Robot Challenge visit:

The Centennial Challenges program is part of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. For more information about the program and descriptions of each of the challenge competitions, visit:

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.