Sep. 2, 2010 at 9:17 PM ET
Twenty teams of teen-agers from around the country have put homebrewed lunar rover prototypes through their paces in the MoonBots challenge, a spin-off of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize program. And the winner is ... Team Landroids from New Jersey.
The rovers may have been glorified toys, built up from Lego Mindstorms robo-components — but the effort involved far more work than play, as demonstrated in the Landroids video above.
More than 200 teams from 16 countries participated in the months-long competition. Each team, consisting of students ranging in age from 9 to 18, had to design a machine that could navigate a lunar-style course with plastic craters and ledges. The 20 top teams turned Lego kits into actual mini-robots for a simulated mission that included picture-taking as well as the retrieval of plastic rings representing water and helium samples.
Last week, the robots were tested in a series of live "mission webcasts." Judges for the event included private-sector spaceflier Anousheh Ansari, inventor-roboticist Dean Kamen, Lego robot builder Steve Hassenplug and National Instruments' Jeff Kodosky.
The X Prize Foundation, which organized the MoonBots challenge to supplement the Google-backed contest for private-sector lunar landers, announced the results on Wednesday. The Landroids of Livingston, N.J., took the top prize, which includes an expense-paid trip to Lego's world headquarters in Denmark.
This summer has been a wild ride for the Landroids: In June, the team won first place (and thousands of dollars' worth of savings bonds) in the national eighth-grade division of the eCybermission program, sponsored by the U.S. Army. For that competition, the kids worked on a deer-avoidance device that would take advantage of tire-noise sonar detection. Compared to that challenge, building a rover out of Lego blocks for a toy moonscape might sound easy. But it wasn't. The team had to cope with computer breakdowns as well as a robot redesign on their way to the MoonBots finals.
Other top teams in the MoonBots challenge include the Shadowed Craters from the San Diego area, who took second place; and the Moonwalk team from New Jersey and Connecticut, who came in third. Check out this list of other robo-builders who earned special recognition.
"The work these students did this summer was truly spectacular," William Pomerantz, senior director of space prizes for the X Prize Foundation, said in a news release. "The mission very closely paralleled the work our Google Lunar X Prize teams were doing, so we greatly enjoyed watching those technical challenges worked out on a different scale. The new era of lunar exploration is being built on the contribution of people of all ages and nationalities, and it is clear that the MoonBots participants have what it takes to make important contributions."
Next month, the Google Lunar X Prize teams will come together on the Isle of Man for the fourth GLXP Team Summit. The Oct. 4-5 meeting is timed to coincide with World Space Week, one of the big opportunities to celebrate past space achievements and look toward the future.
One future achievement could well be the world's first private-sector landing on another celestial body. Twenty-two teams are chasing $30 million in prizes set aside for private-sector lunar missions. The effort promises to become even more lucrative now that NASA is offering to pay as much as $30.1 million for data relating to lunar lander demonstrations.
"The Google Lunar X Prize has a great deal of momentum now, with an incredible roster of teams and with major agencies such as NASA stepping up to become customers of our teams," Pomerantz said. Will one of those teams land on the moon before the prize program expires on Dec. 31, 2014? If rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 are available to launch those robots toward the moon, I think it'll happen. But what do you think? Put down your prediction in the comment space below.