To support future missions and reduce risk, NASA created the TechLeap Prize to rapidly identify and develop technologies of significant interest through a series of challenges. Participants in these challenges submit an application to develop a specific technology and then compete for awards to build the technology. As an added incentive, NASA intends to provide a flight test to the Winners of each challenge.
The Universal Payload Interface Challenge is the third NASA TechLeap Prize competition.
One of the many complex aspects of spaceflight is the design of interfaces for payloads that fly aboard host vehicles. NASA would like to see payloads get to flight test as quickly as possible, but the process to ensure that a payload can interface appropriately with the flight vehicle is often complex and time-consuming. How do you efficiently and effectively facilitate the operations and safety of disparately designed and developed payloads and ensure that they function appropriately across a variety of flight vehicles?
UPIC is seeking solutions to this problem from eligible individuals, teams, and organizations who can develop a flight-ready universal payload interface — an optimized interface system that enables easy integration of diverse space payloads onto various flight vehicles. NASA is seeking proposed universal payload interfaces that seamlessly adapt a diverse range of small space-based payloads (e.g., technologies, laboratory instruments, scientific experiments) for testing aboard various commercial flight vehicles (e.g., suborbital, orbital, planetary lander) and address the most common elements of interfaces.
This challenge is seeking innovative solutions that address flight interface ambiguity and can address the use cases identified in the Technical Guidelines.
The NASA TechLeap Prize challenges are open competitions designed to discover promising technologies for space exploration, discovery, and the expansion of space commerce. NASA encourages participation from teams who may not have previously engaged in other NASA funding opportunities.
NASA welcomes applications from individuals, teams, and organizations or entities that have a recognized legal existence and structure under applicable law (state, federal, or country) and that are in good standing in the jurisdiction under which they are organized with the following restrictions:
U.S. government employees may participate so long as they are not acting within the scope of their position and rely on no facilities, access, personnel, knowledge, or other resources that are available to them as a result of their employment except for those resources available to all other participants on an equal basis. Employees and contractors of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are not eligible to win an award.
Foreign citizens may only participate as (i) employees of an otherwise eligible U.S. entity who reside in the U.S., (ii) full-time students at an otherwise eligible U.S. university or college who reside in the U.S., or (iii) owners of less than 50% of the interests in an otherwise eligible U.S. entity who reside in the U.S.
Additionally, NASA encourages participation from teams who demonstrate a commitment to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Refer to the Rules for a complete set of eligibility requirements.
Please review the application to better understand the submission requirements, as well as the scoring rubric to learn more about what constitutes a strong application. In order to participate in the UPIC Challenge, you must first register no later than 5:00 PM Eastern on Thursday, February 1, 2024. Registration is a simple two-step process. First, create a username and password, then check your email inbox to confirm your registration. Next, complete the online registration form. Once you are registered, applications are due no later than 5:00 PM Eastern on Thursday, February 22, 2024.
There will be three types of evaluation. During Evaluation Panel review, each valid application will receive scores and comments from a highly qualified panel of expert judges who will use a scoring rubric to evaluate their assigned applications. Potential biases in Evaluation Panel review are addressed through our training, which includes unconscious bias training for each member of the Evaluation Panel. All scores are normalized to ensure fairness for everyone.
The Selection Committee judges will review top-scoring submissions and select up to three Winners based on the resulting rank order from the Evaluation Panel, scoring rubric, and diversity of solutions. Winners will each receive an initial award of $200,000, with the chance to win a total of up to $650,000 each and the opportunity for a flight test of their system.
During System Build Round 1 and System Build Round 2, Winners each will have the opportunity to win additional awards of $200,000 and $100,000, respectively. Field Judges will conduct on-site visits in October 2024 and March 2025 to score the progress each Winner has made.
To win an additional award of $150,000 during the Performance Incentive Phase, a System Build Round 2 Winner must meet or exceed targets outlined in the Technical Guidelines and integrate a payload into a flight vehicle – both of which will be assigned by NASA – within a five-month timeframe. NASA also intends to provide the opportunity for a flight test to each of the Winners.
Universal Payload Interface Challenge funds are issued as a prize, and not a grant. Prize funds can be wire transferred to the winning team (or their institution, as applicable) upon being named as a winner. The prize funds can be used flexibly as the team sees fit.
If you are a past grantee of the SBIR program, you may submit a proposed technology. If you are a current grantee and have received Government funding for similar projects in which you are developing a flight-test ready universal payload integration system for spaceflight applications, you or your employer are not eligible for award under this challenge. Please contact us if you need help determining your eligibility.
If you are an employee of a government contractor, you should be eligible to participate in this challenge as long as your entity does not currently have government funding for similar projects to develop a universal payload interface system.
You may not be eligible for an award if similar projects to develop a universal payload interface system are in progress and government-funded in part or wholly. Additionally, the U.S. Government may have Intellectual Property Rights in your solution if your solution was made under a Government Contract, Grant or Cooperative Agreement. Under such conditions, you may not be eligible for an award.
However, if you or your company does not have funding for work that meets this specific description, you should be eligible to continue your participation.
Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional questions regarding your specific situation.
Federal entities or Federal employees acting within the scope of their employment are not eligible to win an award. Similarly, employees and contractors of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are not eligible to win an award.
If you or your employer is receiving Government funding for similar projects in which you are developing a flight-test ready universal payload integration system for spaceflight applications, you or your employer are not eligible for award under this challenge. Additionally, the U.S. Government may have intellectual property rights to your solution if your solution was made under a Government contract, grant, or cooperative agreement. Under such conditions, you may not be eligible for award. Please contact us if you need help determining your eligibility.
Any entity needs to ensure that they are legally eligible to participate. If flight providers determine that they are eligible to participate, we would encourage them to do so. The key is that applicants cannot receive funding for the same work twice. See the Rules for eligibility information.
NASA intends to secure flight tests for each of the Winners at no cost to the Winners. It is up to the challenge participant to define the scope and target vehicles of their UPIC system. Proposed systems should expect to be compatible with many types of outgoing-to-the-payload and incoming-from-the-payload interfacing options across a broad range of commercial flight test vehicle types (e.g., suborbital, orbital, planetary lander).
This challenge is not targeting a specific list of payloads, but rather the spectrum of payloads that are flown in academia, government, and industry. As general guidance, challenge participants could target payloads in the 1-4U volumetric range, but this does not need to be the case and individual UPIC solutions might vary in their payload and flight vehicle use cases.
We encourage challenge participants to reach out directly to industry flight providers for more information about their vehicles.
For an idea of what kinds of payloads, vehicles, and flight regimes Flight Opportunities works with, you can refer to the Flight Opportunities website: Flight Summaries Page, Technology Portfolio Page, IDIQ4 solicitation here and here. Participants should not consider these exclusive, nor base their solution on the needs of specific prior payload flights. Participants should also note that this list of payloads likely does not represent the requirements of hosted orbital payloads.
Each application should reflect the anticipated ownership, use, and licensing of any intellectual property. While the Technology Title and Technology Description from the submitted application may be published on this website and/or the NASA website, the ownership and use of intellectual property arising from this competition remains with you. NASA may choose to negotiate for a right-to-use license for technology developed as a result of the competition.
There is no firm preference for the design to be provided as open-source IP. There is a desire for the UPIC solution to be broadly accessible and implementable by innovators who need it the most. It is up to challenge participants to convey how their UPIC system would be implemented.
You can find technologies previously selected for flight testing through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program here. Many PIs are willing to talk about their experiences with potential applicants. You can also find more information and listen to recorded webinar sessions with PIs on the Flight Opportunities Community of Practice web page.
If you need assistance completing the registration and/or application process, please contact us. We encourage people with disabilities to submit to the Universal Payload Interface Challenge. We provide accommodations as needed.
Please email us your questions, and a member of the NASA TechLeap Prize team will respond as quickly as possible during regular business hours.
Once you have registered and throughout the competition, we will send important notifications to the email address associated with your account, as well as the primary and secondary contacts listed on your registration form. There are three critical steps you can take to make sure these messages are received promptly:
We expect the registrant to be the primary person responsible for completing and submitting the application. There is an opportunity to list additional contacts on the registration form as well. The authorized official from the university does not need to be the registrant – we ask that you follow the processes and procedures your university requires in order to participate. Once you’ve registered, the registration information can be changed and updated up until the submission deadline, as needed.
It is up to each proposer to determine an appropriate budget for their proposed solution. You may include any cost categories, including contingencies for risk mitigation, that support the development of your technology. You are welcome to organize this by phases and include costs after the challenge is complete. Please note: Although the award amount is up to $650,000, the amount provided in this budget may be more than, less than, or equal to that value. The inclusion of the budget in the proposal is to determine if the proposed project plan and budget are reasonable.
NASA intends to provide an opportunity to flight test at no additional cost to the Winners. Winners will be awarded up to $650,000 in prizes as part of this challenge and the prize funds can be used however the winners see fit.
It is a requirement that the liability insurance be current and valid from date of submission through December 31, 2025. If you are named as a preliminary challenge winner, you will be asked to submit your proof of insurance and other eligibility requirement documentation. You do not need to submit your liability insurance at time of submission. Please do familiarize yourself with the requirements and ensure that you meet them prior to submission. Insurance Guidelines can be found under Section F. Information for Winners on the application.
A proposed universal payload interface system should aim to meet all eight (8) of the minimum required capabilities as outlined in the Technical Guidelines and be as broadly applicable as the proposer sees fit.
During Build Phase 1 and Phase 2, participants should design and develop their universal payload interface “in preparation to be flight tested” with a payload and vehicle assigned by NASA as part of the Performance Incentive Phase. If the universal payload system is not designed in preparation to be flight tested, they likely wouldn’t proceed past Build Phase 1 or 2.
Post-challenge activities and infusion of UPIC technologies into standardized interfaces will depend on the solutions brought forth as part of the challenge. There are many different paths that this could take, and NASA is excited to work with the participants and the broader community to take advantage of the outcomes of this competition and seek opportunities for future impact. Potential options for follow-on activities might include commercial products, new standards, open-source opportunities, etc.
There is no expected TRL for the UPIC solution. The participant must be able to build and demonstrate their system within the scope of the challenge timeline.
For the system readiness phases, the intention is for participants to prepare flight-ready systems. Without knowing specifics of the proposed UPIC systems, it may be applicable for some aspects of the design to be proof-of-concept or notional, as long as the participant is preparing a flight-ready subset of hardware/software in anticipation of the payload readiness phase of the challenge. We encourage you to research and discuss what that could entail with industry flight providers. In many cases this is likely not a space qualification set of requirements and may instead be a less rigorous set of "do-no-harm" requirements.
It is unlikely for a software-only solution to meet all the minimum required capabilities of a UPIC solution as outlined in the Challenge Technical Guidelines. Flight vehicles have unique software interface requirements. It is up to the challenge participant to define the scope and target vehicles of their UPIC system and develop their solution accordingly. We encourage participants to reach out to commercial flight providers to learn more about their interfaces and how they might develop compatible systems.
Hardware verification is not a prerequisite for the initial proposal. If a participant has existing hardware, or is planning near-term validation of hardware, that may be used to add credibility to any proposed UPIC solution.
The Technical Guidelines provide use cases that participants may use to guide development of their UPIC solutions. These are examples of real-world situations where a UPIC solution would be beneficial. The sample scenarios are not exhaustive, and the flight demonstration portion of this challenge may not be from the provided examples. Details of how a hardware and software solution would be tailored and specialized for known interfaces would be viewed favorably, as it would add credibility that the proposed solution could be readied during the performance incentive phase of the challenge.
Keep in mind that innovators may need to fly payloads on more than one type of flight vehicle, and so UPIC solutions should target as wide a range of interface requirements as feasible for the proposed system.
A universal interface that enables multiple flight tests across multiple vehicles is desired. A family of standardized interfaces falls into a “system of systems” approach and is well within the expected proposed solutions.
The utilization of each UPIC system or system of systems will depend on the target use cases, target flight vehicles, and target users. That said, the Technical Guidelines provide some guidance on ideal CONOPs. For instance, it would be ideal for the UPIC system to be available to payload developers prior to flight vehicle selection and/or interface definition. This enables payload developers to deliver flight-ready units to a variety of flight providers.
Environments are determined by the flight vehicles involved, and it is up to the applicant to determine the vehicle scope and therefore the operating environments for their particular solution. We envision UPIC ideally being used up to and including environments such as Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. Each environment represents a unique set of challenges for UPIC systems.
It is envisioned that the UPIC system could be applicable to external flight vehicle interfaces (in addition to the interior of the spacecraft). Some payloads require test environments outside the interior of spacecraft. While it is envisioned the UPIC solution would be applicable to both external and internal flight environments, there are no requirements that UPIC systems be assembled entirely using space qualified materials.
Flight vehicles have unique power interface requirements. It is up to the challenge participant to define the scope and target vehicles of their UPIC system and develop their solution accordingly. We encourage participants to reach out to commercial flight providers to learn more about their interfaces and how they might develop compatible systems. Solutions that can address a wide range of likely payload requirements will be judged favorably.
Modular mounting refers to an aspirational desire that the UPIC system developed be able to mount to multiple flight vehicle mechanical interfaces with minimal engineering work required to adapt the interface(s). Please note that modularity and flexibility to meet diverse sets of requirements among vehicles is a minimum required capability.
We leave it up to each participant to determine the content for the 90-second video provided as part of your application. Please note, however, that the video must be in English or subtitled in English, must be captioned, should not contain images of identifiable children, and should not include copyrighted material for which you do not have a license. Be sure to set the Privacy Settings to Public or Unlisted (NOT Private).
Additionally, the application page provides general suggestions for delivering a high-quality video pitch.
Yes, you are welcome to secure additional funding and resources to develop your solution. If you have other investors and funders secured, please list sources of funding under Excess Cost Narrative on the application form.
Universal Payload Interface solutions can be a system, or system of systems comprised of hardware and software elements. The proposed universal payload interface system should aim to meet all eight (8) of the minimum required capabilities as outlined in the Technical Guidelines and be as broadly applicable as the proposer sees fit.
Results of the UPIC scoring are not submitted to CPAR or NASA Past Performance record. Those systems are for evaluation of organizations and individuals who have a contract with NASA. UPIC is a prize competition not a contract or grant.
The prototype built as part of the system build phase does not need to be the same hardware used for the eventual flight test. While flight requirements timing will depend on the flight opportunity, which is yet to be determined, payload, flight provider and flight requirements would be revealed no earlier than five months from a payload integration review.
We’re excited that this competition has generated a lot of interest in the space tech community. We expect the evaluation process to be competitive. At this time, we are not able to provide information on the total number of applicants. To give your submission the best opportunity for success, we encourage you to closely review the technical guidelines and scoring criteria.
There are no requirements regarding subcontracting portions of the development to another business. However, each application should reflect the anticipated ownership, use, and licensing of any intellectual property. NASA may choose to negotiate for a right-to-use license for technology developed as a result of the competition.
A flight readiness review will be conducted before a flight test (after integration of a payload with the UPIC solution) to ensure that all flight vehicle requirements are met, which may include environmental testing, depending on the vehicle. It’s important to remember that it’s a successful integration and not a successful flight that determines whether a solution will be awarded during the performance incentive phase.
Participants are encouraged to share all relevant costs associated with the development and build of their UPIC solution. The inclusion of the budget in the proposal is to determine if the proposed project plan and budget are reasonable.
UPIC solutions could interface power and radio with a host flight vehicle or could be self-sustained with independent communication solution. It is up to UPIC participants to make a case for the use cases of their solution with regard to integration of payloads to flight vehicles.
UPIC winners will be assessed during the selection period, and again at System Build Round 1 and Round 2. The winners will be assessed against their proposed scope. Each UPIC winner will be evaluated based on their progress compared to their proposed UPIC system development plan using the criteria outlined on this website (see Scoring Process). We expect some flexibility and implementation of lessons learned during the Performance Incentive Phase. There are no specific contractual requirements as this is a prize competition. However, in order to be eligible for further awards, winners will need to meet a minimum score as described under Scoring Process for each of the system build rounds.
NASA is seeking proposed universal payload interfaces that seamlessly adapt a diverse range of small space-based payloads (e.g., technologies, laboratory instruments, scientific experiments) for testing aboard various commercial flight vehicles (e.g., suborbital, orbital, planetary lander) and address the most common elements of interfaces between the payloads and flight vehicles.
The proposal will be shared with judges. While judges are required to keep the submission materials confidential, we encourage you to only share information that you feel comfortable sharing with the public. Additionally, parts of your application, such as the overview and the video, may be shared on this website, so please consider this while writing your response.
The payload and flight vehicle requirements will be made available no sooner than five months before the flight readiness date. During the Performance Incentive Phase, it is expected the payload to be integrated to the flight vehicle utilizing the UPIC system that was developed.
Submissions will be evaluated based on the evaluation criteria outlined under Scoring Process on this website. Each applicant will need to determine the level of detail that they believe is needed to address these evaluation criteria.
The payload is defined as technologies, laboratory instruments, or scientific experiments that fly on-board commercial flight vehicles (e.g., suborbital, orbital, planetary lander). The payload and the vehicle (e.g., suborbital vehicle, spacecraft bus) are two distinct things.
Yes, COTS are allowed to be used as part of the solution. However, each application should reflect the anticipated ownership, use, and licensing of any intellectual property.
The goal of the performance incentive phase is to take the system developed in the system build phase and move right into payload integration. Depending on how each system is designed it may be modular in nature so it need not be made specifically from the same hardware used during the system build phase. Teams must clarify the specific elements of their UPIC system in the application and will be expected to use the construct of their interface during the build rounds and performance incentive phase.
No, the proposal does not need to be a brand-new design. However, if you or your employer is receiving Government funding for similar projects in which you are developing a flight-test ready universal payload integration system for spaceflight applications, you or your employer are not eligible for award under this challenge. Additionally, the U.S. Government may have intellectual property rights to your solution if your solution was made under a Government contract, grant, or cooperative agreement. Under such conditions, you may not be eligible for award. Please contact us if you need help determining your eligibility.
Additionally, each application should reflect the anticipated ownership, use, and licensing of any intellectual property.
The UPIC solution must meet the minimum interface requirements as indicated within the UPIC technical guidelines. The intention for this challenge is a single UPIC per payload. Capability for integration of multiple payloads with a single UPIC would be considered an additional capability, if it did not reasonably preclude integration with a single payload. Each applicant must choose the approach that they believe will best address this challenge. There are no constraints on the approaches that may be proposed to build a universal payload interface.
If you or your employer are receiving Government funding for similar projects in which you are developing a flight-ready universal payload interface system, you or your employer are not eligible for award under this Challenge.
This is the third iteration of the NASA TechLeap Prize – we encourage you to visit nasatechleap.org to view winners and results from the Autonomous Observation Challenge and Nighttime Precision Landing Challenge. The number of applicants for each challenge has varied significantly among the TechLeap challenges. NASA intends to select up to 3 winners for UPIC.