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NASA Selects Three Winners in Inaugural TechLeap Prize Challenge

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NASA seeks to improve a variety of Earth and space-based capabilities, including detecting and tracking wildfires, identifying plumes of gas venting into Earth’s atmosphere, and precision tracking of small spacecraft positions in orbit. The NASA TechLeap Prize is helping to advance these types of technologies for space exploration and Earth observation.

The agency has named three winners in the first TechLeap Prize competition, Autonomous Observation Challenge No. 1. The proposed solutions will help rapidly advance small spacecraft technologies for autonomous observation of events on Earth and beyond, as well as improve communications and computing power in small spacecraft applications. The winning teams will each receive an initial $200,000 prize they can use to begin building their payloads for a later suborbital flight test.

The winning teams are:

  • The Bronco Space Club at Cal Poly Pomona (Pomona, California): The team’s Bronco Ember technology is designed to autonomously detect, track, and log terrestrial phenomena such as wildfires.
  • Orion Labs, LLC (Nunn, Colorado): The company plans to demonstrate the capabilities of quantum machine learning aboard a small spacecraft to reduce downlink bandwidth requirements.
  • Texas A&M SEAK Lab (College Station, Texas): The team plans to develop a system using visible and infrared imaging to identify and classify plumes in Earth’s atmosphere automatically.

The challenge, conducted by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, opened for submissions June 10, 2021, and winners were selected just 14 weeks later. The teams will develop payloads that are expected to be ready for a suborbital flight test within eight months. In comparison, preparation of similar payloads can often take 18 months or more.

“The ability to select and fly technologies this quickly can help us change the pace of space for everyone,” said Christopher Baker, program executive for NASA’s Flight Opportunities and Small Spacecraft Technology programs at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “Advancements in autonomous observation technologies will be crucial for future missions, and we look forward to supporting these teams as they quickly advance their technologies and prepare for flight testing.”

An evaluation panel assessed the submissions based on how well they addressed key technology gaps, their impact on improving the current state of the art, and the feasibility of developing the technology for a suborbital flight test. Commercial businesses, academic institutions, entrepreneurs, and other innovators were eligible to participate. Each team will have the opportunity to receive additional awards of $200,000 and $100,000 during the payload build phase. NASA intends to provide a suborbital flight test with a NASA-contracted flight provider to each team that successfully develops their payload by summer 2022.

Flight Opportunities, part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), helps a wide range of space technologies reach maturity more quickly by testing them on suborbital flights. These tests can provide critical data and insight into how a technology is expected to perform in its intended space environment, and help reduce risk prior to much more costly orbital missions. For this challenge, Flight Opportunities worked closely with NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, also part of STMD, to address gaps of significant interest to the small spacecraft research community.

NASA plans to conduct additional challenges as part of the TechLeap Prize. For more information, including details about future challenges, visit:

Learn more about opportunities to participate in your space program through NASA prizes and challenges:

The Flight Opportunities program is managed at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

The Small Spacecraft Technology program is managed at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The program expands the agency’s ability to execute unique missions through rapid development and demonstration of capabilities for small spacecraft applicable to exploration, science, and the commercial space sector. 

The NASA Tournament Lab, part of STMD’s Prizes, Challenges, and Crowdsourcing program, is managing the TechLeap challenge. The program supports public competitions and crowdsourcing as tools to advance NASA research and development and other mission needs. Leveraging its NASA Open Innovation Services 2 vehicle, NASA contracted with Carrot to administer the challenge.