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NASA moon-dirt robodigger compo ends in chaos

'Regolith simulant' defeats all contenders

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A NASA competition between robots designed to shovel up moon dirt has ended in failure.

The "Regolith Excavation Challenge" is intended to "promote the development of new technologies to excavate lunar regolith" - that is, to dig moon dirt.

The California Space Authority, which ran the competition for NASA, said: "Excavation is a necessary first step towards lunar resource utilisation, and the unique physical properties of lunar regolith make excavation a difficult technical challenge."

Moon dirt is more difficult to dig than ordinary Earth earth, apparently, as it is composed of compacted interlocking particles with "blocking" properties.

Competing teams were invited to build autonomous digger-bots which would scoop up as much "lunar regolith simulant" as they could in a 30 minute period and deliver it to a collector. The mechanised navvies were required to mass no more than 40kg - the weight of a medium sheep - and drew on a 30-watt DC power supply during the trial. A minimum of 150kg had to be shovelled in order to qualify for the $250,000 purse.

Four robotic diggers were entered by teams from Technology Ranch of Pismo Beach; Berkley, Michigan; Bolla, Missouri; and Rancho Palos Verdes. The competition was held in a one tonne sandbox on Saturday.

But the designers had clearly failed to prepare their mechanised contenders adequately, as only the Technology Ranch's bot made it to the end, and even it only managed to scrabble up a measly 65kgs.

The $250,000 prize therefore remains unclaimed, and will roll over until next year's compo, when the prize money will reach $750,000.

The annual moondirt dig-off is just one of NASA's Centennial Challenges. MoonROx" is a competition for machines which can extract oxygen from moondirt collected by some future, successful digger-droid. There are also lunar lander and astro-glove events, and the Personal Air Vehicle (PAV) challenge, an attempt to revive the notion of flying cars.

The inaugural PAV event will be the next one to take place, and is scheduled for August. The winning prototype should possess these qualities:

  • A 150-200 mph car that flies above gridlock without traffic delays
  • Quiet, safe, comfortable and reliable
  • Simplified operation akin to driving a car
  • As affordable as travel by car or airliner
  • Near all-weather, on-demand travel enabled by synthetic vision
  • Highly fuel efficient and able to use alternative fuels
  • Up to 800 mile range
  • Short runway use from small residential airfields.

Anyone who fancies making something like that and being paid just $250,000 for doing so should apply to NASA. ®

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