NASA wants feedback about Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge

I am sporadically following the NASA Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge.  It is one of the NASA Centennial Challenges that is run out of the Office of the Chief Technologist.  (About Centennial Challenges.)  The latest twist is a questionnaire that indicate that NASA is re-thinking the challenge.

The questionnaire

NASA has put out a two-part questionnaire regarding the NSL Challenge. The parts are directed at separate audiences: (1) nano-satellite users/builders and (2) potential launch service providers. The purpose seems to be to ascertain the desires of users/builders in terms of their mission needs, and figure out what sort of contest will help drive launch innovation toward fulfilling those needs.

Announcement of the questionnaire is found on the Federal Business Opportunities site as Solicitation # NNH12ZUA001L.  Title: Request for Information – Centennial Challenges Nano Satellite Launch (NSL) Challenge. This, in turn, takes you to the questionnaire on the NASA site.  Responses need to be returned to Dr. Larry Cooper at NASA HQ. The deadline is September 10. His e-mail address is on the questionnaire.

I think anyone who has a nanosatellite/CubeSat design on the drawing board should respond. I wonder just how many nanosat projects are actually in planning.

As for my personal views on nanosat launchers…

The business case for nanosat launchers

I favor having on-demand nanosat launch service for 1U thru 3U payloads, where “on-demand” means something on the order of a couple of weeks. We cannot do this today.

We also put major constraints on nanosat designers. As it stands now, I see basically two ways to get nanosatellites into orbit. (1) Be a secondary payload, where the primary makes the rules and can bump you off, and you go only when the primary is ready to launch. (2) Go to the ISS on one of the supply missions (e.g., NanoRacks) and get pushed off the station; you will have to show that your payload will not endanger the ISS or its occupants if anything goes wrong. In either case, you have to show that you are not going to put an investment of 10s or 100s of millions of dollars at risk; the primary has every right to grill you and make you jump through hoops.

The way out of that is make the nanosatellite the primary payload, or at least ride with a few other payloads of equal perceived value. That is, you need a nanosatellite launcher. I think this is a critical enabler to get non-space commercial businesses to take advantage of space.

For a commercial company to do research work in LEO (I’m thinking materials or biotech) you need a short development feedback cycle. A company should be able to design an experiment, get it launched, obtain data, redesign the experiment, and go again in 2 or 3 months. With anything longer, the team needs to find alternatives to get or supplement results, or get reassigned to other work until an experiment has flown. At that point, it gets very difficult to make a business case for going to space on a regular basis.


Thanks to Charles Pooley at Microlaunchers for pointing out this new development in the NSL Challenge.

With very minor variation, this post by me was also submitted as a comment to Thespaceshow’s Blog for the date of August 21.  David Livingston, the host of The Space Show, ran an Open Lines call-in program.  Charles was the second caller on that program.

Addendum – Dec. 31, 2012

For those who followed the NSL Challenge this now old news.  NASA cancelled the challenge in late November.  The challenge had a complex fitful history in getting started.  While it was happened, it was perhaps overtaken by other programs, chiefly the Army SWORDS program and the DARPA ALASA program.  However, Percy Luney of Space Florida, which was managing the challenge on NASA’s behalf, noted “Without the prize funds provided by NASA, Space Florida is unable go forward with the NanoSat Launch Challenge at this time. We are considering other options.”  So as a NASA Centennial Challenge, it is over.  But that may not be the end of the story.

Additional info: