CubeQuest Challenge Logo. Credit: NASA artist’s concept

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is putting up a $5 million prize purse to encourage private teams to send small satellites to and beyond lunar space as ride-along payloads on the first launch of the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule.

NASA announced the so-called Cube Quest Challenge competition in the federal register Nov. 24 and will begin accepting entries Dec. 2. Teams must be based in the United States and complete the competition’s flight objectives one year after the first SLS-Orion launch, which will take the rocket and crew capsule to a distant lunar retrograde orbit. NASA has said this mission will probably not launch before late 2018.

Satellites must be built in accordance with cubesat standards, which call for standardized modules that measure 10 centimeters on a side and weigh several kilograms each.

Most of the prize money in the three-phase competition is reserved for completing in-flight goals NASA laid out in the official contest rules. However, a relatively small slice of the purse will be set aside for completing development milestones on the ground.

The three phases of the Cube Quest Challenge, and the prize money allocated for each, are:

  • Ground Tournaments: $500,000 for four qualifying ground tournaments to determine which satellites will have the ability to fly on SLS.
  • Lunar Derby: $3 million for demonstrating the ability to place a cubesat in a stable lunar orbit and demonstrate communication and durability near the Moon. The winning satellite will be the one that communicates the largest amount of data in 30-minute and 28-day time frames, NASA said.
  • Deep Space Derby: $1.5 million for demonstrating communication and cubesat durability at a distance greater than almost 4 million kilometers, about 10 times the distance from Earth to the Moon. As in the lunar phase, the winning satellite will be the one that delivers the most data Earth in half-hour and 28-day time frames.

Prize money is also available for the satellites that last the longest and travel farthest from Earth, NASA said.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.