Nasa will award teams prizes from the Night Rover Challenge’s $1.5 million prize pool if they build a power system that lets rovers operate during the two-week long lunar night. CleantechOpen, a non-profit incubator of environmental technology startup companies, manages the contest which will be held at Nasa’s Glenn Research Center.
Earth has sent three robotic rovers to explore the Moon: the Soviet Union’s two Lunakhod rovers in the 1970s and China’s Yutu rover in 2013. All three used solar panels to generate electricity during the lunar day and went into sleep mode during the lunar night. More efficient lunar missions require a power source that can keep a rover operating night and day. Radioactive systems like the one powering Nasa’s deep space probes and the Curiosity rover are expensive and use scarce plutonium supplies. Nasa hopes the Night Rover Challenge will produce innovative energy storage systems that can collect energy during the day that the rover can use during the night. The teams competing in the challenge don’t have to design the rover itself, just the power system.
In Phase 1 of the Challenge, the teams must demonstrate their systems in Earth ambient conditions. A facility at the Glenn Research Center will simulate the lunar rover. During each simulated lunar cycle the teams’ systems will receive power as if it comes from solar panels. Two weeks later, the simulator will draw power from the storage system for two weeks as if the rover was working. The teams’ entries must work for two full lunar cycles to qualify for the Phase 1 prizes. Judges will also evaluate the entries based on how much energy they store and how little the system weighs. The Phase 1 trials began in January 2014 and will conclude in late March.
Depending on the success of Phase 1, the Night Rover Challenge will move on to Phase 2. The teams must demonstrate their systems in lunar conditions simulated in one of the Glenn Research Center’s thermal vacuum chambers.