Nasa's Sample Return Robot Challenge

Objective Number 1 in planetary science is to bring samples of Mars back to Earth. Physical “ground truth” adds context to the data already collected by orbiters and rovers and makes new science possible. The only reason we understand as much as we do about the Moon is because scientists can compare observations from telescopes and lunar orbiters to the rocks the Apollo astronauts brought back from the Moon.

One concept for a Mars sample return mission. Credit: Nasa/JPL-CalTech

One concept for a Mars sample return mission. Credit: Nasa/JPL-CalTech

Nasa has several ways to retrieve samples. One option is to send landers that will collect and store samples ("pre-cache" in Nasa's lingo) for later retrieval. Another option is to send a rover to collect a diverse set of samples from several regions. But accomplishing those missions requires new ways of doing things. As advanced as the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers are, rover drivers millions of kilometers away must make too many decisions. 

Nasa created the Centennial Challenges program in 2005 to get more creative ideas into the space agency's technology development program. Nasa’s planners worried that its traditional approach produced ideas that were too conservative. By asking the general public for help, they hoped they could get off-the-wall ideas that Nasa's conservative culture would never produce. Set up as a series of contests, the Challenges bring in new ideas in topics from mining lunar resources to new kinds of spacesuit gloves. Anyone can participate in a Centennial Challenge - many of the winners have been backyard tinkerers who thought up a better way of doing things..

Although not very Mars-like, the sample return rovers must navigate this course. Credit: Worcester Polytechnic University

Although not very Mars-like, the sample return rovers must navigate this course. Credit: Worcester Polytechnic University

Nasa created the Sample Return Robot Challenge in 2012 to find out-of-the-box ways to make future rovers more independent. Worcester Polytechnic University hosts the contest on its campus each summer. Teams must design rovers that search a varied terrain and collect samples without any human intervention. The terrain and samples don't simulate Mars exactly - there's no grass on Mars - but the rover must handle a combination of inclines, surface roughness, and traction that represents the variety Mars rovers experience.. Teams get a mock orbital photo of the site, as well as the location of a pre-cached sample, so they can plan. Once the rover starts moving, however, the teams can only sit back and watch. 

Nasa has a $1.5 million purse to award prizes - if teams accomplish the contests goals. Showing up with a rover that meets the contest requirements and works earns $500. Nasa will award up to 10 Level One prizes of $5,000 go to teams whose rover navigates the terrain and recovers the pre-cached sample within 15 minutes. Nasa awards Level Two prizes to teams whose rovers navigate the terrain, recover the pre-cached sample, and find and recover other samples within 2 hours. Teams earn points for the type and difficulty of each sample their rover retrieves. Based on those points, Level Two prizes start at $100,000 and could reach much higher, depending on how much the $1.5 million purse gets divided among winning teams.

West Virginia University's team Mountaineers' robot won a Level One prize at the 2014  Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: Nasa

West Virginia University's team Mountaineers' robot won a Level One prize at the 2014  Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: Nasa

But Centennial Challenges aren’t meant to be easy. Nasa wants real results that help them explore space, not Kodak Moments. None of the teams won a prize in the competition’s first year. Los Angeles-based Team Survey won the first Level One prize last year. That made the team of off-duty engineers the only team eligible to compete for a Level Two prize in 2014’s contest, but their rover didn't finish the course in time. The only other prize-winner in the 2014 contest was team of students from West Virginia University who won a Level One prize in their first appearance in the contest.