The University of Saskatchewan Space Design Team (USST) arrived early this week at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center as one of the favorites to win up to $2 million in prize money at the NASA sponsored Centennial Power Beaming Challenge. Unfortunately for the student team, technical issues throughout the week resulted in a disappointing outcome.
The power beaming challenge is a practical demonstration of wireless power transmission. Teams build mechanical devices (climbers) that can propel themselves up a vertical 1 kilometer cable. The power supply for the device is not self-contained but remains on the ground. The technical challenge is to transmit the power to the climber and transform it into mechanical motion, efficiently and reliably. The teams will be using a laser provided by games sponsor Triumph.
Practical systems employing power beaming would have a wide range of applications from lunar rovers and space propulsion systems to airships above the Earth. Another future application of power beaming would be the space elevator concept and many of the competitors are advocates for this technology.
After an initial setup on Monday and Tuesday the competition started on Wednesday with USST’s two other competitors, the Kansas City Space Pirates and Lasermotive going first. Lasermotive put in a great climb and qualified on their effort for at least a share of the $900,000 level 1 prize. Unfortunately time ran out on Wednesday and USST did not get a chance to compete. This meant they would have two opportunities on Thursday.
On Thursday though USST’s technical issues continued and they were not able to get their climber going in either windows of opportunities they had. That left them with one opportunity early this morning. Based on past performances in previous competitions it was not hard to imagine them making a great come from behind winning climb. At first it looked like they might be on track but it soon became obvious that whatever technical issues they were having again was going to prevent them from winning any prize money this year. With their last attempt completed it was time to start packing up and thinking about next year.
At this time it is unknown if there will be a competition next year. Lasermotive and the Kansas City Space Pirates both have one last attempt to win prize money. In the case of Lasermotive they are aiming for the top prize of $1.1 million. To qualify for that prize they have to climb the 1 kilometer tether at an average speed of 5 meters per second. The Kansas City Space Pirates have yet to put in qualifying run for either prize level but will give it one last shot. If neither team qualifies for the level 2 prize money then the competition will be back on again next year giving USST another chance.