Status Report

NASA Seeks Inventors for Its Upcoming Cube Quest Challenge

By SpaceRef Editor
January 7, 2015
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NASA Seeks Inventors for Its Upcoming Cube Quest Challenge

We are a nation of inventors.Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, the Wright Brothers, Dr. Temple Grandin, George Eastman and Elon Musk are just a few individuals in a massive catalog of creative makers who have used the inspiration of the innovative culture of the United States to advance technology. At the same time, government research has pushed the fundamental, but not-yet-commercial side of research in an incredibly important way, and at the core of that is NASA. For more than fifty years, NASA has transferred its cutting-edge technologies to the private sector, helping create new commercial products, improve existing products and boost the competitiveness of the U.S. economy.

It isn’t just a one-way street, though; NASA is increasingly reaching out to individuals and organizations outside of the agency to apply their own inventive initiative to further technology needed to enable the next steps required to execute NASA’s goals in space exploration and aeronautics.

In order to accomplish great things, NASA has always needed partners in industry and academia. But notable accomplishments do not only come from big moonshots and Mars landings. Some amazing technology developments can be found in very small packages, like projects from NASA’s Ames Research Center, including PhoneSat and the upcoming Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks missions, in which engineers use commercial off-the-shelf smartphones as the “motherboard” to operate mini cube-shaped research satellites or CubeSats. 


Each single CubeSat is approximately four inches in length, width and height, and weighs 3 pounds. Small satellites are an interesting development in space exploration because of their low cost and relatively easy access to space. Typically CubeSats hitch a ride on launches that have some leftover weight and volume capacity in addition to the primary payload flying.

Ames, located in California’s Silicon Valley, is recognized as a major contributor to the small satellite community through projects like PhoneSat. As such, Ames was a natural organization to issue a challenge to the nation to incentivize development of CubeSat capabilities. In November 2014, NASA announced that Ames will manage a competition called the Cube Quest Challenge under the agency’s series of Centennial Challenges

The Centennial Challenges program drives innovations in aerospace technology through collaborative teams of citizen-inventors, universities and industry participation; increases communication through public forum and results-oriented competitions; and fosters economic productivity and opportunity through new or expanded business development. There have been 24 Centennial Challenges events since 2005. NASA has awarded more than $6 million to 16 challenge-winning teams in competitions such as the Sample Return Robot Challenge, the Strong Tether Challenge and the Moon ROx Challenge.

For the Cube Quest Challenge, teams must design, develop and deliver a small spacecraft the volume of six combined single CubeSat units that can catch a ride to lunar orbit or further in deep space, and then rapidly transfer large data volumes from itself to Earth, while surviving the extended duration in space.


“CubeSats have yet to prove their capabilities for extended missions at large distances in deep space, so we are really looking forward to the innovations teams bring to the table,” said Cube Quest Challenge administrator James Cockrell of Ames.  

With a chance to win up to $5 million, the competition requirements are difficult, as teams will have to compete to demonstrate technical excellence and acceptance for safety and interface requirements if they want a ride on NASA’s maiden voyage of the Space Launch System rocket. Teams can arrange their own launch if they choose, but teams will still compete for navigation, communications and longevity achievements.

To get the party started and encourage engagement, Ames is hosting the Cube Quest Summit on January 7 and 8, 2014, at its campus in Moffett Field, California. 

“We really want to provide an environment for teams to self organize, discuss and network prospective partners with launch service brokers, ground station operators, test labs, subsystem providers and system integrators among others,” said Cockrell. “This will also be their opportunity to meet NASA leaders and the challenge judges, learn details about Cube Quest rules and constraints and learn a wealth of information from safety qualifications, radio licensing and policies for flying spacecraft to the moon.”

Advancements in small spacecraft capabilities will provide benefits to future missions and also may enable entirely new mission scenarios, including future investigations of near-Earth asteroids. Together, these competitions, through knowledge sharing, partnering and innovation, are steps to opening deep space exploration to non-government spacecraft.


SpaceRef staff editor.