A team of students from the University of Alabama has taken out the top prize – the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence for scoring the most points overall – at NASA’s Lunabotics 2022 challenge.
More than 30 one-of-a-kind robots mined simulated lunar regolith during the competition, which took place between 23 and 27 May at the Center for Space Education near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Their goal was to dig well below the surface and collect as many rocks as they could and deposit them in a collection bin. The first-place award for On-Site Mining went to Montana Technological University.
‘Just like the Apollo missions sparked a fire of curiosity and perseverance in the hearts of students so many years ago, Artemis is challenging this generation to dream bigger, think differently, innovate more critically, and be inspired like never before,’ said Kennedy Space Center director Janet Petro. ‘We are looking to the next generation of STEM students and encouraging their innovation, determination and imagination as we return to the Moon and explore beyond.’
The competition challenges university-level teams to use the NASA Systems Engineering Process to design, build and operate a lunar robot. The teams also perform public outreach, submit systems engineering papers and demonstrate their work to a NASA review panel.
‘After three years of delay due to a government shutdown and COVID-19, we were finally able to host the Lunabotics competition in a brand new regolith-simulant arena,’ said Robert Mueller, a senior technologist and principal investigator in Kennedy’s Exploration Systems and Development Office and the competition’s co-founder and lead judge. ‘In previous years, we were in rented tents, fighting the heat, humidity, lightning storms and rain with flooding. Now we are in a first-class, safe, reliable, air-conditioned indoor facility.’
This year’s competition wasn’t without its challenges. During their mining runs, some robots got stuck in the regolith or on obstacles placed in the mining arena, or they just didn’t move. However, the teams persevered, making adjustments in real time to prepare for their second runs the next day.
‘An interesting effect was that the regolith simulant was drier than when it was outdoors in a tent, so the competitors noticed a change in its shear strength, causing it to fluff up, making it harder to drive on – just like the Moon!’ Mueller said.
Many of the teams are working toward semi-autonomy or fully autonomous robots for future competitions. Nearly all of the robots had several 3D-printed parts. For many of the graduating students, the onsite portion of Lunabotics also served as their senior engineering design challenge and is an opportunity to stand out among their peers when applying for internships and positions in STEM careers.