Hangar one

Nineteen teams and their robots set out to compete for a total of $750,000 in prizes at the annual Regolith Excavation Challenge, which took place October 17 and 18 at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

The competition, which simulates the conditions of maneuvering and digging on the lunar surface, gives teams a chance to innovate and invent new methods of engineering robotics for space exploration.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Jamie Foster

moon dirt

The competition for scientific innovation in space exploration requires teams to build robots that are able to dig, transport, and deposit the faux moon dirt regolith.

Here, the Sandstorm robot from North Royalton, Ohio, gets ready to compete.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Jamie Foster

The challenge to dig

Competitors are required to use mobile robotic digging machines capable of excavating at least 330 pounds of regolith and depositing it into a container in 30 minutes or less.

This competitor from the Terra Engineering team in Gardena, Calif., took second place.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Jamie Foster

First place winner

At the end of the two-day competition, the $500,000 first place prize was awarded to Paul's Robotics of Worcester, Mass., whose robot "Moonraker" is seen here moving through the regolith game field.
Photo by: California Space Authority/Jamie Foster

Loading the bots

The vehicles, which are operated remotely by the teams, are required to contain their own power source and weigh no more than 176 pounds.

The Invading Huns from Palm Bay, Fla., shown here, unload their robot.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Jamie Foster

Winning teams

The winning excavator lifted 965 pounds of regolith material in the allotted time. Runners-up excavated 595 pounds and 580 pounds, respectively.

Special mention went to Team E-REX and Eric Jones of Little Rock, Ark., for transferring the most regolith, 165 pounds, in a single deposit into the official collector bin.

Here, team Innovation Island, from Southwest Harbor, Maine, moves its robot into position.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Jamie Foster

Lunar dust

The simulated moon surface in which the robots maneuvered was a 4-meter square area filled with a finely ground volcanic rock that simulated the extremely fine particles of lunar dust.

The dust is raked and compacted before each team's turn, making the dense surface comparable to the moon. A few larger rocks, scattered randomly, provide additional obstacles.

Here, Team Waldbaum waits for its turn on the simulated lunar surface.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

Lunar Surface

The regolith surface, like lunar dust, is very fine--less than 30 micrometers in diameter. It's also extremely dry, and the particles want to stick together, making it very difficult to dig.

In this shot, UBC Tread Robotics from Vancouver, B.C., begins the competition.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

Remote controlled

Teams operate their robots remotely from another room, with the added challenge of a two-second delay to simulate the real-life delay from Earth to moon.
Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

Excavation

Although this is the third year of the Regolith Excavation Challenge, it is the first time that any team has met the minimum excavating requirements to qualify for a cash prize.

Here, Terra Engineering dumps a load of regolith into the depository.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

Moonraker

Paul Ventimiglia, team leader of Paul's Robotics, anticipated their robot's movements would kick up a cloud of the dusty regolith soil. The blue lights the team added make it easier to see "Moonraker" through the cloud, which improved their ability to navigate in the low visibility.
Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

Cash prizes

The team Paul's Robotics was awarded the first place title and the $500,000 grand prize. The $150,000 second prize went to Terra Engineering of Gardena, Calif. Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verde, Calif., took home third and $100,000. The awards represent the largest amount NASA has ever presented in a competition.
Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

Lightweight, sturdy, and powerful

In holding competitions like these to develop intelligent robotics, NASA hopes many talented young people will become involved and contribute to the innovations required to take space exploration to the next level.

One hope, NASA says, is to one day establish small bases and a permanent presence on the moon, and machines and inventions displayed in competitions like these are critical to the success of such missions.

Building lightweight, sturdy, and powerful robotics are technical hurdles these teams have overcome, says Greg Schmidt, deputy director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, and one day ideas presented here might find use in future missions to the moon.

Photo by: California Space Authority/Sam Coniglio

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