Tampa will have a spot on the inaugural voyage of NASA's most powerful rocket ever as it paves the way for the future exploration of Mars.
A 17-member Tampa-based group called Team Miles designed a miniature satellite that will be on the unmanned rocket Space Launch System that NASA hopes to launch into deep space in 2019.
"Shock and joy," team leader Wes Faler told the Tampa Bay Times by phone just moments after hearing the news at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "This is unbelievable."
The announcement on Thursday was the culmination of a two-year contest called the Cube Quest Challenge. NASA challenged teams not directly connected to the federal agency to develop miniature satellites called CubeSats that can broadcast from deep space.
Team Miles' CubeSat will be just under 12 inches on its longest side and cost $600,000 to build, making it easier and cheaper to deploy than traditional bulky satellites.
No CubeSat has ever been sent into deep space. But when NASA explores Mars one day, it hopes CubeSats can transmit data.
Team Miles was one of 13 teams to enter the contest. There are CubeSat spots on the unmanned rocket for the top three finishers.
Team Miles placed third.
The members are mostly self-taught volunteers from the nonprofit Tampa Hackerspace, which provides equipment, classes and mentoring for technology driven projects and initially brought the team together.
Team Miles was one of only two teams in the contest that were not tied to an elite university. The second team was made up of former NASA interns.
"We wanted to keep believing and keep hoping but when you see the other strong competitors we wondered at times if we had a real chance," Faler said. "When we heard our name called we went bananas."
In May, NASA representative Monsi Roman told the Tampa Bay Times that Team Miles represented what the contest was all about.
"We wanted to involve people who are not within our circle," Roman said. "We want the housewives from Oklahoma and the ranchers from Montana. We want everybody to contribute to our journey to Mars."
To make it this far, on four occasions, Team Miles had to submit hundreds of pages of their research detailing how their satellite will work.
That was the easy part, Faler said. Now they need the money to build it.
"We've talked to a few investors but everybody drags their feet until they find out if they are betting on a winner," Faler said. "No one wanted to bet on a horse until they saw the results."
Team Miles' device will be released near the moon — 289,000 miles from earth — then propel itself as far as 28 million miles farther.
Over a year, their CubeSat will compete with the other remaining teams for $5 million in prizes. Performance categories include whose CubeSat can communicate fastest and from farthest away.
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"This is not just a win for us," Faler said. "This a win a Tampa. We're putting Tampa into deep space toward Mars."