NASA $1M contest intent on sending robots to Mars

Registration open for teams to build virtual systems for robots to help humans on Mars

NASA engineers want humanoid robots to help astronauts living and working on Mars to help build habitats, grow food and make potable water.

The space agency on Tuesday opened registration for teams to compete for a $1 million prize purse in what it’s calling the Space Robotics Challenge.

The contest is intended to encourage development of robots that are capable of working in the harsh environment of Mars and that have enough strength, precision and autonomy to be useful to human teammates.

A qualifying round will run from mid-September to mid-November. Teams that make it through that initial round will then compete in the finals next June.

The competition will be held in a virtual environment, using softwarem not with physical robots.

The virtual systems will take on managing the aftermath of a dust storm that has damaged a human Martian habitat, according to NASA. Winning systems will have to master three objectives: aligning a communications dish; repairing a solar array and fixing a habitat leak.

“Precise and dexterous robotics, able to work with a communications delay, could be used in spaceflight and ground missions to Mars and elsewhere for hazardous and complicated tasks, which will be crucial to support our astronauts,” said Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, in a statement. “NASA and our partners are confident the public will rise to this challenge and are excited to see what innovative technologies will be produced.”

Each competing team must build a virtual humanoid robot modeled after NASA’s Robonaut 5 (R5) to take on simulated tasks.

Robonaut 2, a 300-pound humanoid predecessor to R5, has been working on the International Space Station since 2011 .

The robot started out working without legs and mounted on a stationary base.

In 2014, NASA shipped a pair of legs to be attached to Robonaut 2. The expectation was that the robot, which had been given menial taskslike cleaning to free up astronauts’ time, is expected to one day be used for bigger jobs, even doing work outside the space station, and saving humans from doing as many dangerous space walks.

For a humanoid robot to work on Mars, it will have to take a design page from Robonaut 2.

NASA noted that hydraulic systems are used on Earth-based robots. That won’t be the case for systems working in space because of the frigid temperatures.

R5, for instance, uses high-tech elastics instead of hydraulics.

NASA will callon the competing teams to think outside the box to finding new ways to build better robots.

Any successful software built during the challenge could be uploaded into different NASA robotics systems. For instance, software could be uploaded into Robonaut 2 while it’s working on the space station, as well as into new robotic machines.

The space agency is working on the challenge in conjunction with Space Center Houston, the Johnson Space Center and NineSigma, a global innovation consultancy.

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