August 12, 2019      

HOUSTON – NASA and Space Center Houston today announced opening submissions for Phase 2 of the Space Robotics Challenge, in which teams will compete for a prize pool of up to $1 million that could be used to continue research and discovery.

The next phase aims at virtually designing autonomous robotic operations to expand the existing dexterous capabilities of robots, and “help America maintain its leadership in technology,” the group said in a press statement. Developed in partnership with Space Center Houston, the NASA Centennial Challenges, and presented by BHP, the Space Robotics Challenge aims to unite people from around the world to help further space exploration. It’s also part of the space center’s Innovation Gateway community science initiative, which empowers the public with authentic learning experiences that contribute to real scientific research.

Space robotics challenge patch

Image: Space Center Houston

“Everyday explorers now have the opportunity to design useful solutions to support deep space exploration,” said Daniel Newmyer, vice president of education at Space Center Houston. “This challenge will continue to advance robotic technology and research that is vital to future missions.”

Registration for the challenge is now open, and closes in December. The qualification round will begin in March 2020, lasting through August 2020. A competition round will be held from December 2020 to June 2021, with winners announced at an event in Houston in September 2021. Science and technology enthusiasts, independent teams, research organizations, and private companies can all submit proposals through the challenge website.

Finding useful materials

The first phase of the challenge occurred in 2017, and focused specifically on NASA’s Valkyrie robot, also known as Robonaut 5 and R5. Phase two will focus on autonomous robots operating on the surface of the moon and collecting and manufacturing useful materials.

“As NASA moves forward with plans to support human exploration of the solar system, a critical need arises to supply basic materials such as oxygen, water, food, propellants, and other materials (radiation shielding, clothing, etc.,” the challenge materials state. “As mankind ventures farther from Earth and for greater periods of time, it becomes imperative to develop technologies and mission architectures that utilize local resources, such as those found in lunar regolith, to provide supplies needed for human exploration.”

The objective of Phase 2 is to find solutions that allow a heterogeneous, multi-robot team to autonomously complete tasks envisioned for a lunar in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) mission. The challenge will require competitors to develop software that allows a virtual team of robotic systems to operate autonomously to successfully achieve these tasks.

“Efficiency, reliability, crew comfort and safety are critical to long-duration missions to other worlds,” said Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA Centennial Challenges. “We are excited to collaborate with Space Center Houston to involve the public in helping NASA advance technology in autonomous robotics for these long-duration missions.”