Think You Can Guide a Virtual NASA Droid on Mars? You Could Win $1 Million

NASA's R5 robot, also called Valkyrie, is the target of a new competition that puts its virtual alter ego to work repairing a simulated Mars habitat.

NASA is offering $1 million to teams that can coax a virtual robot through tricky tasks to save a simulated habitat on Mars.

The robot, based on NASA's Robonaut 5 (R5, also known as Valkyrie), will have to repair the habitat after a dust storm by aligning a communications dish and fixing a solar array and habitat leak, all while dealing with a delay in communication like the real one from Earth to Mars. The contest is a partnership with Space Center Houston and the innovation consultant organization NineSigma.

"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," Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges, said in a statement. "NASA and our partners are confident that the public will rise to this challenge, and are excited to see what innovative technologies will be produced."

Robots like R5 could one day explore new territory before humans can, help them on their long interplanetary journeys, conduct preliminary scientific research and take care of habitats once humans leave, officials said in the statement.

Teams can register for the Space Robotics Challenge now, and enter a qualifying round running from mid-September to mid-November. Finalists, announced in December, will be able to do practice rounds up until the final competition, which will be held virtually in June 2017.

The successful software developed during the competition can be used with R5 and also earlier robots, such as Robonaut 2, which was sent to the International Space Station in 2011. The contest is a part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which encourages innovation and technological advances for spaceflight through open competitions.

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