The Centennial Challenges program, managed by Marshall Space Flight Center, has been given a green light to develop a new challenge centered on excavation of lunar regolith to help the agency meet the goals of sustaining human presence on the Moon and eventually Mars. The challenge will be open to the public and co-managed by Marshall and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
“NASA is always looking for cutting-edge technologies that can be applied to current or future missions and Marshall is proud to co-lead this challenge that will further that goal,” said Preston Jones, associate director, technical, at Marshall. “The success of previous challenges is helping the agency advance technologies that will enable us to land on the Moon and Mars. This challenge will explore areas that are crucial to deep space exploration and the Artemis program.”
Centennial Challenges offer incentive prizes to the public, academia and industry working to develop revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. This will be the first Centennial challenge to be managed by Marshall. The center, along with Kennedy, will provide subject matter experts and help develop official rules. Additionally, testing facilities at the two sites could be used in demonstrating the technologies developed by competing teams to aid in judging the competition.
The Centennial Challenges team presented the plan for the new challenge at the Space Technology Mission Directorate Program Management Council’s virtual meeting April 15, and received approval to proceed with development of the challenge. This allows the program to partner with academia and industry to finalize details of the competition. The three-phase challenge is expected to have a prize purse of up to $5 million and open for registration no earlier than November.
Due to the properties of regolith, and extreme environmental conditions present on the Moon, existing excavation technologies available on Earth are not viable options for the lunar surface. The goal of the competition is development of autonomous excavation technologies for near-term lunar missions that address key operational elements and environmental constraints. The technologies developed and demonstrated as part of the competition are expected to facilitate manufacturing and construction for lunar infrastructure that will be needed for future missions to the Moon and beyond.
“The challenge is an enabling and timely effort to expand lunar exploration and commercial enterprise in space,” said John Vickers, principal technologist for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “These technologies are needed from the beginning to enable our capabilities for in-situ resource utilization and to prepare for a broad array of lunar surface infrastructure emplacement.”
Vickers will serve as the principal technologist and subject matter expert for the challenge and will lead the effort in establishing goals and success criteria for the competition.
To kick off the development of rules for the challenge, the Centennial Challenges team and experts from NASA will meet for a virtual workshop May 11-12. In February, the team hosted a two-day workshop at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, where leaders from NASA, academia and industry participated in brainstorming activities to learn about and explore technology gaps related to the challenge.
Editor’s note: Amanda Adams, an ASRC Federal/Analytical Services employee, supports Marshall’s Office of Strategic Analysis and Communications.