Flying somewhat under the radar, NASA has told IFLScience it will hold its first ever competition in space in two years, with prizes totaling $5 million up for grabs.
The competition is called the Cube Quest Challenge. Teams will launch small CubeSat satellites, about the size of a loaf of bread, as secondary payloads on the inaugural launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket in 2019.
There are two parts of the competition. One will see teams race to 4 million kilometers (2.5 million miles) above Earth; the other will involve a literal race around the Moon.
“This is the very first time NASA has conducted a competition in space!” Jim Cockrell, the Cube Quest Challenge administrator at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, told IFLScience.
The first competition is called the Deep Space Derby. Two teams are currently signed up, CU-E3 from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Miles, a group of citizen scientists and engineers. After launching on the SLS, they will have to send their CubeSats to an altitude of at least 4 million kilometers, proving their location by emitting radio signals picked up by antennae on Earth.
Once here, there will be a number of prizes on offer for each team. The ultimate goal is to test out technologies for communicating at this distance, making this more a technical competition than a scientific one.
The biggest prize in this derby is $750,000, awarded to the team that sends the most data back to Earth over a 28-day period. The team that operates the longest will be awarded $225,000, while the biggest burst of data in a 30-minute period has an award of up to $250,000.
The team that sends data back from the greatest distance, beyond 4 million kilometers, stands to win up to $250,000. CU-E3, for example, says their CubeSat can reach a distance of up to 27 million kilometers (17 million miles).
The data, sent in 1024-bit “data blocks”, has to be in a specific format in order to win. The data must also be free of errors in order for a panel of judges to deem it successful.
“Competitors CubeSats use software code on board their spacecraft to generate sequences of data based on prescribed algorithms and protocols,” said Cockrell. “Judges can reconstruct the correct sequence of the data, using the same algorithm, to verify authenticity of the generated data.”
The teams can use their own ground stations to retrieve the data, although NASA will listen in on the transmission stop and start times to verify it was successful.