NASA Cancels Nanosatellite Launch Vehicle Competition

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WASHINGTON — NASA canceled last month a multimillion-dollar prize competition to support the development of a dedicated nanosatellite launch vehicle after concluding potential entrants — beyond those already involved in two existing government launch vehicle programs — lacked the ability to build such a vehicle in a timely fashion.

Space Florida, the organization running the competition on behalf of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, notified potential competitors Nov. 27 that NASA was terminating the Space Act Agreement between the two governing management of the Nano-Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge. In that message, Space Florida Vice President Percy Luney said NASA did not give a reason for canceling the agreement.

NASA announced the competition in July 2010 as one of several new prize competitions in its Centennial Challenges program. The prize, originally set at $2 million and later raised to $3 million, was to support development of small launch vehicles that could be used for dedicated launches of very small spacecraft. The winning vehicle had to be able to place a payload measuring 10 centimeters on a side and weighing at least 1 kilogram — the dimensions and mass of a single cubesat — into orbit, and duplicate the feat within a week.

Since the prize’s introduction, though, other government agencies have made progress on initiatives to develop dedicated small-satellite launch vehicles. The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command is working on its Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (SWORDS), a vehicle that can place up to 25 kilograms into orbit for $1 million per launch. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working with several companies on an air-launch concept called Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) to place payloads of up 45 kilograms into orbit.

NASA spokesman David Steitz said in a Nov. 27 email that NASA’s decision to terminate its agreement with Space Florida and end the NSL Challenge came after the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., performed a study of 15 companies in the nanosatellite launch sector. That study, he wrote, “concluded that, other than the teams selected for ALASA and SWORDS, the companies lacked experience in designing, developing, or operating launch vehicles and none of the companies seemed to be sufficiently capable of self-financing to deliver the target capability (at approximately $1 million per launch) in the next 3-5 years.”

Steitz said NASA would not release the NASA Ames study because it contained proprietary information provided by the companies surveyed. He did, though, release the list of 15 organizations in the study. They include the three companies selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in June for ALASA systems concepts studies — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Virgin Galactic — as well as Huntsville, Ala.-based KT Engineering, which is working on SWORDS. The remaining are organizations that are working on or have expressed an interest in developing suborbital and small orbital launch vehicles.

In addition to the NASA Ames study, NASA issued a request for information in August regarding the competition, seeking feedback from potential competitors as well as organizations developing small satellites. “Response to the request for information indicated a community that was not prepared to develop a complete launch system in response to the challenge,” Steitz wrote.

Luney said Space Florida was not aware of the NASA study and had little warning that NASA was going to cancel the competition, although work on the competition, including beginning registration of competitors, was on hold while NASA evaluated Space Florida’s proposed rules. “Space Florida was aware that NASA was re-evaluating the Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge in light of the responses to the [request for information],” he said in a Nov. 29 interview. “NASA’s delay in approving the revised rules for the challenge and the [request for information] indicated that there was a debate going on within NASA about the challenge.”

Steitz said that NASA’s decision was not based on Space Florida’s performance in running the NSL Challenge, and that it would be open to revisiting the competition in the future. NASA “will continue to monitor and support the development of nano-sat launchers and will revisit a NSL Challenge concept if needs and opportunities emerge,” he said.

Luney left open the possibility of reviving the competition outside of NASA, if the organization found another source of funds for the prize purse. “If Space Florida has a new source of prize money for the competition,” he said, “Space Florida will seriously consider a request to continue the competition.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story said NASA’s internal nanolauncher study was performed by the NASA Engineering Safety Center (NESC) at Langley Research Center in Virginia. NASA spokesman David Steitz said Dec. 11 that he had misspoke. The study was conducted by NASA’s Ames Research Center “with input from one person at NESC, along with other agency participants,” Steitz said.