Status Report

NASA Centennial Challenges Program Space Race Challenge Request for Information

By SpaceRef Editor
February 17, 2015
Filed under , ,

Synopsis – Feb 17, 2015

General Information

Solicitation Number: NNM15ZZP001L

Posted Date: Feb 17, 2015

FedBizOpps Posted Date: Feb 17, 2015

Recovery and Reinvestment Act Action: No

Original Response Date: Mar 19, 2015

Current Response Date: Mar 19, 2015

Classification Code: A — Research and Development

NAICS Code: 541712

Contracting Office Address

NASA/George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, Procurement Office, Marshall Space Flight Center, AL 35812




The Centennial Challenges Program is NASA’s flagship program for technology prize competitions ( The Centennial Challenges Program directly engages the public, academia, and industry in open prize competitions to stimulate innovation in technologies that have benefit to NASA and the nation. The program is an integral part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing, and flying hardware for use in NASA’s future missions. For more information about NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit: .

The Centennial Challenges program is seeking input on a Space RACE challenge being considered for start in 2015. The challenge would require competitors to build vehicles capable of autonomous rendezvous, capture, and manipulation of small objects at high speeds with applications for the Mars Sample Return campaign, lunar sample return missions, and many other commercial venues.

The purposes of this RFI are: 1) to gather feedback on the competition being considered, 2) to determine the level of interest in potentially competing in this challenge, and 3) to understand the applicability of the technology developed by the competition for other non-government applications.

NASA welcomes replies to this RFI from all segments of industry, academia, and government, including associations, innovators, and enthusiasts. This RFI is for informational/planning purposes only and the Government will not be responsible for any cost associated with preparing information in support of this RFI. This RFI is NOT to be construed as a commitment by the government to enter into any agreement or other obligation, or to conduct a Space RACE (Rendezvous And Capture Experiment) challenge. This notice is issued in accordance with the NASA Prize Authority, 51 U.S.C. § 20144. Responses may be made available for public review and should not include proprietary information. Submitted information will be shared within NASA and with contractor personnel associated with the NASA Centennial Challenges Program. All responses are for general access by government reviewers.

For general information on the NASA Centennial Challenges Program see: . The point of contact is Mr. Sam Ortega, Program Manager, Centennial Challenges Program, Marshall Space Flight Center.


On-orbit sample capture, a special application of Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking (AR&D), poses several difficult challenges. These include close-range on-orbit detection, rendezvous, and capture of a very small, passive space object (<20cm diameter). While there have been several successful AR&D flight systems (e.g., Space Shuttle, Orbital Express, XSS-11, and SpaceX Dragon), a compact and standardized solution for the retrieval of very small passive objects has yet to be demonstrated. Development of a standard on-orbit sample capture/return spacecraft bus would not only enable NASA missions such as Mars Sample Return and lunar sample return, but also minimize the cost of and the risks to future missions. The architecture of the Space RACE competition would spark meaningful technical advancements in dynamic tracking, capture, and precision manipulation of small objects, challenges common to both space and terrestrial applications (such as automated packaging and fruit picking). Space RACE would encourage collaborative innovation between space research and commercial fields.


The competition would simulate the autonomous rendezvous, capture, and manipulation of an Orbiting Sample (OS) around Mars or the moon in the form of a head-to-head competition. Competitors would build a vehicle capable of tracking a simulated OS moving around a flat, circular track at 6 m/s, rendezvousing with it, capturing it, and depositing it in a provided “Earth Return Vehicle” (ERV), all without any off-board systems. They would then face other competitors in head-to-head matches that consist of two rounds each. In each round, competitors would first obtain a stable “parking orbit” at a “high altitude” towards the outside of the track, 180 degrees apart from the other competitor. A circular reference line taped to the track at this radius, as well as an angular reference would be provided to assist competitors in reaching this starting state.

Once both competitors are in their parking orbit, a robotic vehicle (referred to as the “OS Bot”) would be “launched” from the inside of the track into a parking orbit lane at a lower altitude (smaller radius as compared to the competitor’s orbit) carrying two OS’s mounted on front and rear booms, one for each competitor. The OS Bot would insert itself into orbit exactly halfway between each competitor and at a constant speed (4 m/s in the first level of the competition, 6 m/s in the second level). Competitors’ vehicles would then race to rendezvous, capture, and store their OS in their ERVs, with a small caveat: after the OS is launched, vehicles must remain in a specified speed band of +/- 0.5 m/s of the OS Bot’s speed. This would force competitors to change radii to either catch up with or slow down to the OS Bot, simulating orbital mechanics. Competitor’s speed, acceleration, and power consumption would be monitored by a provided regulation package, most likely based on ranging radio technology and IMUs, and the ERV would be a container with an OS shaped depression in it requiring control of position and orientation for successful storage of the OS. The first competitor to accomplish all the above tasks successively would win that round. The second round would be the same as the first, except that the competitors would switch starting positions (fore and aft of the OS Bot).

The OS would be a small white cylinder with reflective fiducial stripes on its surface to assist competitors with tracking. It would be magnetically mounted on its corner in an asymmetric manner and, in the second level of competition, rotated at a constant rate of 4 RPM. The magnets would be tuned such that if a competitor impacts the OS, it would fall away from the mount and the competitor would be disqualified from that round.


Competition Schedule

The competition would be run in two successive levels with increasing difficulty:

1. Level 1 a. OS platform moving at 4m/s b. OS not rotating 2. Level 2 a. OS platform moving at 6m/s b. OS rotates at 4RPM

Within each level, teams would be expected to produce a functioning robot for two phases:

1. Qualifying Round a. Successfully demonstrate the following tasks three consecutive times: i. Static grasping of OS ii. Ability to maintain parking orbit. Robot platform must maintain the correct radius and angular position, as specified by the references. 2. Head to Head a. Two rounds per match, each round lasting a maximum of 5 minutes. b. Minimum total time from GO signal to successful placement of OS in Earth Return Vehicle across both rounds c. Each team would be randomly seeded to compete in three matches each over the course of a day, but guaranteed not to have back-to-back matches. A five minute setup period would take place between the two rounds in a match, and a ten minute setup period would take place between each match. Time results of all matches accumulate for each team to assign rankings; teams with lower overall times would be ranked higher. From these rankings, the top six teams would be selected to compete in a single elimination tournament taking place on the subsequent day.

Tentative Rules and Regulations – These are tentative suggestions for the rules and regulations of the competition and are entirely open to suggestions for changes.

    1. For the purpose of this challenge and rule set, a robot is defined as all mechanical and electrical components provided by a team in order to compete in the challenge successfully. This includes, but is not limited to: motors, batteries, computers, decorations, required safety switches, and items that do not remain attached for the entire challenge 

    2. Competitors may not use any off-board systems to track the Orbital Sample (OS) 

    3. Competitors must obtain a specified parking orbit before the OS is launched. 

    4. Competitors must mount a standard competition regulation package to their robot, which will monitor competitor position, speed, and acceleration. Competitors’ robots are required to demonstrate immediate shutdown response to an E-STOP signal and movement start response to a GO signal from the supplied package. 

    5. Robot may not exceed 50 kg. 

    6. Robot may not exceed 1m width × 1m length × 1m height in its starting configuration 

    7. Robot may extend its workspace beyond the starting configuration size limits by 1m in the height direction and 1m either in the forward or backward direction. 8. The OS consists of a 10cm diameter x 10cm tall cylinder, weighing 150g. 

    9. Robot’s OS-capturing device may not exceed 30cm in diameter 

    10. Robot’s speed must remain between +/- 0.5 m/s of the OS Bot’s speed once initial parking orbit is established. Robots must always move counter clockwise. 

    11. Robot may not employ any technology not applicable to space rendezvous/capture operations such as: 

    a. Sensors that rely on magnetic fields (including the earth’s magnetic field) 

    b. Ultrasonic or other sound-based sensors 

    c. Earth-based or earth orbit-based radio aids (e.g., GPS, VOR, cell phone, etc.) 

    d. Non-conforming communications/operations protocols 

    12. Hazardous materials that pose a threat to teams, spectators, event officials, and the environment are disallowed. 

    13. Robots must be built robustly, and be able to withstand competition stresses. 

    14. Teams and their robot may not interfere with another competitor robot during any part of the competition. Actions that intend to delay or disable competitor robots will immediately disqualify offending team.


    NASA suggests offering the following prizes:

    –  Level 1 Qualifying: Potential $20k prize purse 

    –  Level 1 Head to Head: Potential $150k prize purse shared by top three teams 

    –  Level 2 Qualifying: Potential $20k prize purse 

    –  Level 2 Head to Head: Potential $500k prize purse shared by top three teams


    Responses should be submitted in Adobe PDF or Microsoft Word format and are limited to five (5) pages in length. Responses should include (as applicable): name, address, email address, and phone number of the respondent, business, or organization, with point of contact for business or organization.

    Feedback is sought from the public on the following aspects of the Challenge:

    Conceptual Design of the Competition

     a) General interest in competing 

     –  Are you interested and would you participate in this Challenge? If no, then what would make this challenge more appealing to you? 

    –  Do you have suggestions to make the challenge/competitions more exciting? 

    b) Areas for technology development 

    –  Does this challenge incentivize technology development, or does it simply put a new spin on current, or nearly current, technology? –  Are there ways the competition could be changed to encourage more technology development? 

    c) Competition awards 

    –  Would you compete for the current set of proposed awards? 

    –  If you answered no to the above question, what award levels would incentivize participation? 

    d) Competition structure (phases, milestones, qualifying events) 

    –  Do you think the levels and phases are appropriate? If not, how should they be changed? 

    –  Roughly how much time would you require to successfully meet phase objectives? 

    –  Is the competition format (head-to-head) suitable for this challenge? 

    –  Do you have suggestions for additional qualitative or quantitative metrics for scoring competitors, besides the binary metric of successful capture or not? 

    e) Competition name –  Other than Space RACE, do you have another name suggestion for this competition?

    Technical Design of the Competition

    a) Competition rules and guidelines 

    –  Are any of the rules unclear, and if so, which one(s)? 

    –  Do the rules contain any unnecessary information or make competition impossible? 

    –  Should there be additional rules to be sure the competition is fair? 

    b) Starting configuration of competitors and OS Bot 

    –  Do the parking orbit configurations make sense? Do you have suggestions for an angular reference to hold the parking orbit? 

    –  Do the starting configurations give an advantage to one competitor over the other that has not been addressed? 

    –  Do you have alternative ideas for more fair or more exciting starting configurations? 

    c) Competitor regulation package 

    –  Does the proposed regulation package seem reasonable to you (speed, acceleration, power)? Do you have a preferred interface to this package? 

    –  Do you have suggestions for how the above quantities should be measured and regulated? 

    –  Are there any other aspects of the competitors’ vehicles that should be monitored? 

    d) OS design 

    –  Does the proposed cylindrical design make sense to you? Will it be possible to grasp a cylindrical OS that is rotating asymmetrically? 

    –  Do the proposed fiducials make sense? If not, what pattern/features would you propose? 

    –  Do you foresee any issues with the magnetic mount? If so, how should it be changed? 

    e) Track design 

    –  Does a flat, circular track make sense, or are there other configurations that might be better? Would the competition gain a lot from being held on an inclined track? 

    f) Earth Return Vehicle design 

    –  What shape and orientation should the provided ERV take? 

    –  Is it reasonable to expect competitors to be able to control orientation of the OS while inserting it into their ERV? If yes, to what degree should competitors be expected to control orientation?


In the event that NASA does initiate this challenge, NASA will post a public notice in the Federal Register. At that time, all individuals or entities that wish to participate in the challenge must register as members of a team and enter into an agreement with the designated challenge management organization. No teams that include foreign nationals, who are not permanent residents of the United States, will be eligible to win prize money. The sole exception is for U.S. based educational institutions, which may have up to 50% foreign national students on their teams. No team members may be from countries listed on the NASA list of designated countries the current list of designated countries can be found at .

Teams cannot include any Federal entity or Federal employee acting within the scope of their employer. This includes any U.S. Government organization or organization principally or substantially funded by the Federal Government, including Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, Government-owned, contractor operated (GOCO) facilities, and University Affiliated Research Centers.

NASA and other federal agencies may work with and provide technical support to participating teams, as long as it is done on an equitable basis. That is, similar requests are dealt with in a similar fashion, be it access to facilities, testing, scientific consultation, or other services. This does not obligate NASA or other federal agencies to provide the support. These services may be at no cost, or on a cost reimbursable basis as determined by the subject federal agency in accordance with law and policy.

Registration and participation in a challenge does not entitle a participant to a NASA-funded prize. To be eligible to win a NASA-funded prize, the competitor must 1) register and comply with requirements as stated in the competition rules, and enter into a team agreement; 2) in the case of a private entity, be incorporated in and maintain a primary place of business in the United States, and in the case of an individual, whether participating alone or in a group, shall be a citizen or permanent resident of the United States; and 3) not be a Federal entity or a Federal employee acting within the scope of their employment.


Please submit comments no later than 21:00 EST 30 days after RFI is announced to Mr. Sam Ortega at e-mail address: . Use Space RACE Challenge on the subject line.

For general information on the NASA centennial Challenges Program see: . The point of contact is Mr. Sam Ortega, Program Manager, Centennial Challenges Program, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA Clause 1852.215-84, Ombudsman, is applicable. The Center Ombudsman for this acquisition can be found at .

Point of Contact

    Name:Belinda F Triplett

    Title:Contracting Officer



    Name:Melinda E. Swenson

    Title:Contracting Officer





SpaceRef staff editor.