A solar sail competition to drive research? It’s a great idea, and one that has been explored in the past. Indeed, a whole variety of groups have looked into the possibility, from France’s Union pour la Promotion de la Propulsion Photonique (U3P) to Russia’s Space Regatta Consortium and the Aero-Club de France. And official rules for the Luna Cup were approved by the International Astronautical Federation at the World Space Congress in August of 1992, outlining a solar sail race to the Moon.

Now I’m looking at a NASA announcement passed along by James Benford that outlines prize competitions to be conducted under the agency’s Centennial Challenges umbrella. To quote from the document, “By making awards based on actual achievements instead of proposals, Centennial Challenges seeks novel and lower-cost solutions to engineering obstacles in civil space and aeronautics from new sources of innovation in industry, academia, and the public.”

The challenge possibilities are outlined in a NASA Request for Comments (RFC) document that explores competitions in a number of areas, ranging from low-cost space suits to lunar night power sources. And the one that has caught Benford’s eye involves solar sails. Here’s the relevant information:

The Station-Keeping Solar Sail Challenge is designed to promote the development of solar sail technology and the commercial services that may result from the ability to operate in novel orbits such as artificial Lagrange points.

The Station-Keeping Solar Sail Challenge has two prizes. To win Prize One and the $2,500,000 purse, a Team must be the first to deploy a solar Sailcraft, demonstrate a resultant trajectory acceleration change of at least .05 millimeters per second squared, and fly along a trajectory that will pass through a defined target located at the first Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L1). To win Prize Two and the $2,500,000 purse, a Team must enter a defined region above or below the ecliptic plane at L1 and remain there for 90 consecutive days.

We’ve all had an education in what prize challenges can do for technology through the success of the Ansari X Prize competition and earlier, oft invoked challenges like the Orteig Prize that Lindbergh clinched by flying the Atlantic. I also like the wonderful science fiction association with Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Wind from the Sun,” originally published in 1964 under the title “Sunjammer.” Using yacht racing as the metaphor, Clarke told a bold tale of a race to the Moon using solar sails and largely introduced the sail concept to the general public (although, to be sure, Jack Vance’s “Gateway to Strangeness” and Cordwainer Smith’s haunting “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul” had appeared several years earlier in Amazing Stories and Galaxy respectively).

We must hope for keen interest in a sail competition as one way to keep the technology developing in a time of steep budget cuts. Getting private industry and academia reenergized over solar sail work (especially after the failure of the Planetary Society’s Cosmos 1) cannot help but advance the state of the art, and it is becoming increasingly clear that solar sails are one area where the private sector’s contribution can be immense.