A Festival of Science, Technology...and Robots!

May 15, 2012

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This June, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and NASA are bringing the future to life, and inviting New England’s families to join the fun.

NASA has selected WPI to host and manage its latest Centennial Challenge: the Sample Return Robot (SRR) Challenge. This national competition, with a total prize purse of $1.5 million, is designed to improve NASA's capability to explore a variety of destinations in space and enhance the nation's robotic technology for use in industries and applications here on Earth. To celebrate this event, and to recognize the achievement of being the first university to manage a Centennial Challenge, WPI is inviting the region to its campus on Saturday, June 16, for TouchTomorrow, an interactive festival of hands-on exhibits and activities focused on our scientific and technological future. The festival will run simultaneously with the SRR Challenge, which will take place on and near the WPI campus.

"TouchTomorrow is our way of sharing our excitement about NASA's recognition of WPI as a world leader in the development of robotics science and engineering," said Dennis D. Berkey, president and CEO of WPI. "At WPI, we are passionate about the mission to promote and advance science and technology education to students at the K-12 levels. TouchTomorrow, which we hope will become an annual event, is designed to inspire young people, their families, and their teachers, through exposure to and interaction with advanced aerospace and robotics technology.

A sample of TouchTomorrows outdoor and indoor exhibits and activities:

  • The Space Smart Game, where young people compete to find out who knows the most about the universe and space exploration
  • Be The Robot, a virtual reality adventure that lets participants see what a roving robot sees as it explores the landscape of another planet
  • Engineer a Satellite, which lets participants design and test an interplanetary explorer
  • Bouncing Bubbles!, a fun and informative exploration of the science behind bubbles
  • Lunar Quest, a video adventure game that teaches physics through puzzles and creative challenges
  • Demonstrations by FIRST Robotics Teams of advances in robotics technology, an "inflatable Earth," and an actual rocket launch

In addition to enjoying interactive activities, TouchTomorrow attendees will have opportunities to meet NASA astronauts, explore and learn about research projects being conducted by WPI faculty and students, and watch the SRR Challenge.

For more information on TouchTomorrow events and activities, including schedules and maps, check the TouchTomorrow website in the weeks ahead. 

NASA and the Sample Return Robot Challenge

NASA's Centennial Challenges were created to

  • drive progress in aerospace technology of value to NASA's missions.
  • encourage the participation of independent teams, individual inventors, student groups, and private companies of all sizes in aerospace research and development.
  • find the most innovative solutions to technical challenges through competition and cooperation.

The SRR Challenge requires each of the 11 competing teams to design and build an autonomous robotic system that will locate and collect a set of specific sample types from a large area and then return the samples to the starting zone. The roving area will include a variety of terrain and hazards. A pre-cached sample and several other samples will be located in smaller sampling zones within the larger roving area. Teams will be given aerial, geological, and topographic maps with appropriate orbital resolution, including the location of the starting position and the pre-cached sample.

  • To win a level-1 prize, a robot must autonomously navigate at all times and retrieve the pre-cached sample within the 15-minute time limit. 
  • To win a level-2 prize, a robot must autonomously navigate at all times and must retrieve the pre-cached sample and other samples distributed over the roving area within the two-hour time limit. 
  • A total prize purse of $1.5 million is available from the Centennial Challenges Program.

NASA prize competitions establish an important goal without having to choose one particular approach or the team that is most likely to succeed. NASA prize competitions also increase the number and diversity of individuals, organizations, and teams that are addressing a particular problem or challenge of national or international significance, while stimulating private sector investment that is many times greater than the cash value of the prize. Prizes also capture the public imagination and change people's perception of what is possible.