Robots Win $750,000 Digging Fake Moon Dirt
One of the robotic entries to the 2009 NASA Regolith Excavation Challenge, where contestants had to dig mock lunar dirt and deposit it into a container in under 30 minutes.
Credit: Jamie Foster/CSA

After years of competition, NASA's moon dirt digging challenge finally has some winners. Three different teams took home a total $750,000 in prize money by using homemade robots to excavate simulated lunar dirt.

For the first time in the three-year history of NASA's Regolith Excavation Challenge, teams successfully completed the timed trial during a competition held Oct. 18 at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.

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 space technology.

First place went to the team Paul's Robotics of Worcester, Mass., which took home the top $500,000 prize. Terra Engineering of Gardena, Calif. won second place, with a purse of $150,000. Finishing third was first-time competitor Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verde, Calif., which took home $100,000.

To win the prizes, competitors had to build a remote-controlled robot that could dig at least 330 pounds (150 kg) of simulated moon dirt ? called regolith ? and deposit it in a container within 30 minutes or less. The robots must contain their own power source and weigh no more than 176 pounds (80 kg).

"It's really encouraging that we saw three teams achieve the minimum requirements and shows that innovation is not only alive but growing," said Lynn Baroff, executive director of the California Space Education and Workforce Institute and leader of the panel of judges. "It's really great that through this competition NASA is actively seeking to recognize citizen inventors from across the nation whose ideas may one day contribute to space exploration."

Paul's Robotics, the first-place finisher, excavated 1,103 pounds of dirt within the half-hour time limit, while the second- and third-place winners lifted 595 pounds and 580 pounds, respectively.

While lifting a pile of dirt doesn't sound like much of a challenge, the simulated lunar regolith, like the real thing, is difficult to dig because the individual grains tend to stick together. The robot competitors had to be sturdy enough to scoop the regolith and powerful enough to move through it, while still being light enough to meet the weight requirements.

"This was an incredibly tough competition, and teams came up with fantastic ideas, some of which might find use in future missions to the moon," said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute at Ames. "It's great to have a winner this year. The biggest win is getting so many talented young people involved in NASA's mission of exploration."

The competition was supported by the California Space Education and Workforce Institute and the California Space Authority, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, Diani Building Corp. of Santa Maria, Calif., and Empirical Systems Aerospace of Pismo Beach, Calif.

  • Video - Water on the Moon: Hydrogen, Oxygen and Energy
  • POLL: The Moon or Mars, Where to Go First?
  • Image Gallery - Full Moon Fever