Regolith Rumble: Stage Set for Moon Dirt Digging Contest
An artist's interpretation of autonomous robots digging through regolith on the Moon's surface.
Credit: CSEWI.

Six teams from across the country are headed for a rumble in California on Saturday, where $250,000 in NASA prize money awaits the best robotic Moon dirt diggers.

The contest, NASA's 2007 Regolith Excavation Challenge, will pit the autonomous robots against one another to determine which can move the most mock lunar dirt - or regolith - in 30 minutes at the Santa Maria Fairpark in Santa Maria, California.

"We've got a great group of teams," said Matt Everingham, special projects manager for the California Space Authority, a co-host for the competition. "They have a variety of configurations and a variety of construction styles...I can't wait to see them operating."

The contest is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which offers cash prizes for technological feats in order to spur interest and development in spaceflight technology.

Unlike NASA's Astronaut Glove Challenge, which awarded one $200,000 prize on May 3 to unemployed Maine engineer Peter Homer after his homemade spacesuit glove beat out those of to other teams, the Regolith Excavation Challenge is offering three top prizes totaling $250,000. They are split into $125,000, $75,000 and $50,000 prizes respectively for first, second and third place.

The California Space Education and Workforce Institute (CSEWI) is overseeing the contest for NASA.

About 130 students ranging between Kindergarten and Grade 12 will also compete on Saturday during the California RoboChallenge.

The contest calls for students to construct their own robots out of Legos to either follow lines or compete in sumo wrestling-like feats, organizers said. Like the Regolith Excavation Challenge, the competition is aimed at spurring interest in science and technology.

"We need to have something to excite their interest again," Deborah Hirsh, executive director of CSEWI, said in an interview.

Digging for dollars

To win the cash prizes for NASA's Regolith Challenge, teams must demonstrate fully autonomous robots capable of collecting at least 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of mock Moon dirt within 30 minutes. Whichever robot moves the most regolith over the benchmark limit, while still meeting contest specifications, wins, NASA said.

But in order to compete, lunar regolith excavators must weigh less than 88 pounds (40 kilograms) and run on less than 30 kilowatts of power, according to contest rules.

For one team, the Lunar Miners at the University of Missouri-Rolla in Rolla, Missouri, the solution turned out to be a two-conveyor belt number.

"One has a number of scoops on it to excavate regolith...the other delivers the excavated regolith to a collector," said the team's co-leader Joel Logue, a senior studying engineering, in a statement. "Excavation by a conveyor was found most energy effective after evaluating several other possible designs."

Everingham said teams will have about 10 minutes to set up their machines at a sandbox filled with JSC-1a, a simulated Moon dirt developed for NASA's Johnson Space Center. Once in place, the machines will be switched on and left to run by undisturbed for a half hour.

"They have to be fully autonomous," he said. "That's an important detail."

Moon dirt movers

NASA has more than a passing interest in developing machines to push Moon dirt around, Ken Davidian, Centennial Challenges program manager, told SPACE.com.

The space agency plans to set up a base camp on the Moon's surface by 2020, where lunar regolith may be piled over or against the exterior of astronaut habitats to serve as a radiation shield, Davidian said. NASA also hopes to extract oxygen and other minerals from the untapped lunar regolith.

"But basically, before you can extract it, you've got to excavate this stuff," Davidian said.

Davidian added that NASA experts from the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Glenn Research Center in Ohio, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California will be on hand for Saturday's competition.

"They'll be looking at the technologies that are going to be competing," he said.

Saturday's Moon dirt digging contest will mark NASA's fifth Centennial Challenge to reach the competition level.

In addition to last week's Astronaut Glove Challenge, the space agency's Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander competition met in October 2006, but yielded no winner. The agency's Beam Power and Tether challenges, which have each been held annually since 2005, have also not ended with cash-winning victors.

Any unclaimed prize money from Saturday's competition will be rolled over to the event's planned 2008 contest to add to a planned $500,000 purse, NASA said.

"We're expecting some fairly high level competition," Davidian said of Saturday's regolith-moving showdown. "It will be nice if there's another winner."