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NASA's Robotic Mining Competition

NASA is sponsoring its Sixth Annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition, to encourage students to design the robotic planetary mining equipment of the future.


(Watch NASA's robot mining competition)

NASA’s Sixth Annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition is for university-level students to design and build a mining robot that can traverse the simulated Martian chaotic terrain, excavate Martian regolith and deposit the regolith into a Collector Bin within 10 minutes. There is particular relevance to NASA’s mission of pioneering a human presence on Mars through resource mining and utilization. A critical resource on Mars is water ice which can be found buried in the regolith where it is well insulated. The technology concepts developed by the university teams for this competition conceivably could be used to robotically mine regolith resources on Mars. NASA will directly benefit from the competition by encouraging the development of innovative robotic excavation concepts from universities which may result in clever ideas and solutions which could be applied to an actual excavation device or payload. The unique physical properties of basaltic regolith and the reduced 3/8th of Earth gravity make excavation a difficult technical challenge. Advances in Martian mining have the potential to significantly contribute to our nation’s space vision and NASA space exploration operations.

The complexities of the challenge include the abrasive characteristics of the basaltic regolith simulant, the weight and size limitations of the mining robot, and the ability to tele-operate it from a remote mission control center. The scoring for the mining category will require teams to consider a number of design and operation factors such as dust tolerance and dust projection, communications, vehicle mass, energy/power required, and autonomy.

Of course, science fiction authors have been helping fans to visualize robotic mining for generations. For example, consider the asteroid mining robot from Isaac Asimov's 1944 novel Catch That Rabit:

It was not overmassive by any means, in spite of its construction as thinking-unit of an integrated seven-member robot team. It was seven feet tall, and a half-ton of metal and electricity. A lot? Not when that half-ton has to be a mass of condensers, circuits, relays, and vacuum cells that can handle practically any psychological reaction known to humans...

"Dave," [Powell] said. "You're a stable, rock-bottom mining robot, except that you're equiped to handle six subsidiaries in direct coordination..."

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