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NASA's robotic moon-dirt grubbing contest is go

Mole-mechs battle it out in 'regolith simulant' sandbox

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August is almost here, and 'tis the season to be building moon-dirt digger droids. That's because the annual NASA lunar autoscoop contest is to be held in California this weekend, with 25 design teams competing for $750,000 in prizes.

NASA, plainly no fans of calling a robot spade a robot spade, refer to the contest as the Regolith Excavation Challenge. Competing auto-shovels must "autonomously navigate, excavate, and transfer approximately 330 pounds of simulated lunar regolith, or lunar soil, into a collector bin within 30 minutes".

The droid navvy which can grub up the specified amount of "regolith simulant" fastest wins the $500k first prize. If none of them can beat 30 minutes, nobody wins - as happened last year, where most of the competing mechanoids conked out before thirty minutes was up, and none managed to get a regulation binful.

NASA say they expect improved roboshovel units to be handy in the upcoming phase of moon activity, which will see humans return to the Earth's satellite body once more. It's thought that Moon-dirt could be very useful, both for construction materials and as a possible source of oxygen supplies.

That said, using spacesuited astronauts to shovel dirt - even in one-sixth gravity - isn't seen as a cost-effective way to proceed. Apparently moon dirt is especially difficult to dig, being made up of "compacted interlocking particles". Hence the droid idiot-stick compo, in which competing, roughly sheep-sized digger machines will duel in the "sandbox" moon arena at the California Polytechnic State University.

The competition is being run on NASA's behalf by the California Space Education and Workforce Institute, along with the California Space Authority. Full details on the event are available here.

The competing droids include the toy industry's ToyGarden mReX (mass Regolith eXcavator) and the Tornado from Technology Ranch (a camp which Californian kids can attend to hone their robotics-contest skills). The Tech Ranch offering was the "most successful" digger last year, managing to dig almost 45 per cent of the qualifying amount of "regolith simulant" and unlike its rivals remaining serviceable at the end of thirty minutes.

According Tech Ranch boss robo-cowboy Jim Greenhaw:

"After the team’s success in the 2007 competition, there was no choice but to enter the 2008 excavation challenge, and defend our reputation as the top excavating team."

We can't help feeling that it may be a while before NASA's desired underground moon mole-cruiser machines are ready to go. ®

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