NASA announced two new cash prizes Friday, each with a weighty $250,000 purse, in a pair of contests aimed at developing robotic systems for space exploration.

The space agency is challenging innovators to build an autonomous aerial vehicle to navigate a tricky flight path or robots capable of building complex structures with only limited guidance from their human handlers, NASA officials said.

The contests – dubbed the Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Telerobotic Construction challenges, respectively – are part of the agency’s Centennial Challenges program to spur interest in commercializing space technologies. Both challenges will make their competitive debut in 2007, NASA officials said.

“The Telerobotic Construction Challenge is directly linked to NASA’s focus on lunar exploration,” said Brant Sponberg, NASA’s Centennial Challenges program manager, in a statement.

Meanwhile, the aerial vehicle challenge may yield the same type of probes that could one day soar through the atmospheres of Mars and the Saturnian moon Titan, NASA officials said.

A challenging year

NASA has announced a series of new Centennial Challenges this year, including contests to develop systems for new astronaut gloves, suborbital vehicles and devices to excavate and pull oxygen from Moon dirt.

The program also held its first actual competitions in October during the 2005 Beam Power and Tether Centennial Challenges, which drew 11 teams to compete in two events for a pair of $50,000 first prizes. Both awards went unclaimed, but NASA has promised larger cash prizes for the 2006 meet.

“Based on our experiences with the Beam Power and Tether Centennial Challenges, we anticipate a broad variety of participants, ideas and real hardware for this competition,” Sponberg said of the aerial vehicle contest.  

In order to nab top billing in the Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge, entries must be fly using visual navigation systems only – Global Positioning Systems (GPS) aren’t allowed – as well as extend and retract a probe to hit multiple ground targets, they added.

The California Space Education and Workforce Institute, of Santa Maria, California, is working with NASA in the competition.

NASA is also partnering with the Mountain View, California-based firm Spaceward Foundation – which organized the beam power and tether contest for the space agency – for its the Telerobotic Construction Challenge.

While contest rules will be finalized in 2006, event planners expect competitors to use robots to assemble structures from materials scattered across an arena. The need for cooperative robots and a time delay similar to that in Earth-Moon communications will complicate the task, NASA officials said.

The first Telerobotic Construction challenge is slated for August 2007, with the aerial vehicle contest to follow in October of that year, NASA officials said.