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Moon-dirt diggers win $750,000 in prizes

Three robotics teams claimed a total of $750,000 in NASA prizes on Sunday in the Regolith Excavation Challenge, aimed at promoting the development of robots capable of digging up lunar soil.
Image: Moonraker robot
Paul Ventimiglia and the rest of the team from Paul's Robotics pose for the cameras with their Moonraker robot, which took the $500,000 first prize in the NASA-backed Regolith Excavation Challenge.Jamie Foster / Regolith Excavation Challenge
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Three robotics teams claimed a total of $750,000 in NASA prizes on Sunday in the Regolith Excavation Challenge, aimed at promoting the development of robots capable of digging up lunar soil.

The awards marked the first time in the competition's three-year history that any team qualified for a cash prize.

After two days of competition at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., organizers gave the first-place prize of $500,000 to Paul's Robotics of Worcester, Mass. Terra
Engineering of Gardena, Calif., was awarded the second-place prize of $150,000. Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verde, Calif., won $100,000 for its third-place showing.

Competitors were required to use mobile, robotic digging machines capable of excavating at least 330 pounds (150 kilograms) of simulated moon dirt, known as regolith, and depositing it into a container in 30 minutes or less. The rules required the remotely controlled vehicles to
contain their own power sources and weigh no more than 176 pounds (80 kilograms).

The winning excavator lifted 1,103 pounds (501 kilograms) within the allotted time. Runners-up excavated 595 pounds and 580 pounds, respectively (270 and 264 kilograms). Team E-REX of Little Rock, Ark., earned a special mention for transferring the most regolith in a single deposit: 165 pounds (75 kilograms).

"It's really encouraging that we saw three teams achieve the minimum requirements and shows that innovation is not only alive but growing," chief judge Lynn Baroff, executive director of the California Space Education and Workforce Institute, said in a NASA statement issued Monday. "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."

Regolith is difficult to dig because its dust particles are naturally sticky. Judges said that the winning teams achieved technical accomplishments because their robotic systems had to be sturdy enough to scoop moon dirt and powerful enough to move through the dust while still meeting the weight requirements.

The Regolith Excavation Challenge was sponsored by the Centennial Challenges program in NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program Office. The competition was co-hosted by the California Space Education and Workforce Institute and its sister organization, the California Space Authority, in collaboration with the NASA Lunar Science Institute. Diani Building Corp. of Santa Maria, Calif., and Empirical Systems Aerospace of Pismo Beach, Calif., also supported the competition.

Another NASA-backed Centennial Challenge, known as the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, is due to reach its climax at the end of this month. The contest calls for lunar lander prototypes to make round trips between two pads under conditions meant to simulate a lunar landing and takeoff. Two teams, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace and California-based Masten Space Systems, already have qualified for prizes. Two other California teams, BonNovA and Unreasonable Rocket, have not yet flown their prototypes.

As much as $1.65 million in prizes could be awarded to the lunar-lander competitors.

This report includes information from a NASA news release.