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Robotics Moon NASA Science

Moon-Excavation Robots Face Off 61

Posted by Soulskill
from the can-you-dig-it dept.
avishere writes "Student teams designed and built robotic power-lifters to excavate simulated lunar soil (a.k.a. 'regolith') earlier this month, with $750,000 in prizes up for grabs. Excavating regolith, according to NASA, will be an important part of any construction projects or processing of natural resources on the Moon. Interestingly, regolith is especially difficult to dig because its dust particles want to stick together. The whole robotic system has to be sturdy enough to scoop moon dirt and powerful enough to move through the dust while still meeting the weight requirements. The winning excavator, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, lifted 1,103 pounds within the allotted time, and got its creators a sweet $500,000 for their troubles."
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Moon-Excavation Robots Face Off

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  • I hear... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Caterpillar aka. CAT machinery is pretty efficient at that.

    • by Auraiken (862386)
      Also, if there is such a problem with dust particles sticking to things wouldn't it be slightly easier on the moon to charge a belt at one end and degauss on the other?
  • by kurt555gs (309278) <kurt555gs@@@ovi...com> on Saturday October 31, 2009 @11:41AM (#29934909) Homepage

    I am wondering if the money being spent on a manned space program is just wasted. With the davances in robotics, we could be scooping up Martian soil, Europan ice, and goo from Saturn's moons and bringing it home for a fraction of putting a man on Mars.

    Unless we get volunteers for a one way manned Martian mission, I think the money should be put into advanced robot probes.

     

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by khallow (566160)
      Manned space effort is based on the premise that there will be a sizable number of people living or visiting in space in the not so distant future (within say 50 years). If true, useful manned space efforts now would position the US for a competitive advantage.
      • That's exactly what we all thought in 1969....

      • by lennier (44736)

        "Manned space effort is based on the premise that there will be a sizable number of people living or visiting in space in the not so distant future (within say 50 years)."

        Right, that's the vision of the Space!Future! I was sold as a kid in the 1970s. And I thought it must be true, because Scientists were saying so.

        But one important bit was left out. What will all those people be *doing* that can't be done cheaper either on Earth, or by robots?

        Doing Science? Uh-huh. That would have to mean 'astronomy'. Who p

    • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @11:55AM (#29934993) Homepage

      I am wondering if the money being spent on a manned space program is just wasted. With the davances in robotics, we could be scooping up Martian soil, Europan ice, and goo from Saturn's moons and bringing it home for a fraction of putting a man on Mars.

      These are not, or shouldn't be, mutually exclusive. Clearly picking up a sample of Martian soil and bringing it back to Earth is going to prove out some technologies that are useful for human missions.

      Robots and humans can, and should, work together. But, ultimately, it's not about the robots-- it's about us. The goal should be extending our civilization out beyond the Earth.

      (...and, in a final comment, let me note that you may be vastly optimistic about how hard it is to return samples from the Jupiter and Saturn systems. These are some very very difficult missions.)

    • by Redwing (311189) *

      I suspect that if anyone asked for such volunteers, they would be plentiful.
      Before I had kids, I would have been first in line.

      • I suspect that if anyone asked for ill-qualified volunteers, they would be plentiful.

        Fixed that for you, emphasis mine.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bat Country (829565)

      Unless we get volunteers for a one way manned Martian mission, I think the money should be put into advanced robot probes.

      We won't get any unless we start asking for some and putting up the money to make it a reality.

      What good would volunteering now do, when they'll tell you you ought to be ready to roll in 2020? If you're, say, 40 now, in pretty good health, feel like you've accomplished a lot on earth and are ready to cast yourself away to the depths of space never again to see mother earth except via video camera so you decide to volunteer for a one-way mission to build the first Martian colony, then you're told, "OK great,

      • We'll get volunteers - there's absolutely no doubt of that. We just need to build the mission. If you could launch next month, you could find at least 30 academics, scientists and good old fashioned laborers who would sign up just for the shot at making human history who would have their bags packed in half a day and be asking for their airline ticket to Cape Canaveral.

        Including me. I'd do it as a labourer, if that was the only option. and I'd be on the highway toward Canaveral in 45 minutes....

    • Dunno.

      Moon rocks returned by Apollo manned missions: 382kg
      Moon rocks returned by Soviet robot missions: 0.326 kg

      So they cost less but they return less.

      There's also the argument that, assuming a geologist is collecting them, you'll end up with better "quality" rocks than an automated mission could return.

  • The moon challenge is cool-- and it's great to see students compete (this is something we really need)-- but what I really love is the lunar lander challenge (also previously featured on /.). Seeing videos like this one [htttp] just thrill me. The real problem with spaceflight has been that some time back in the '50s it moved the ability of individuals and small groups to participate in, and I just love that idea that real experimental rocketry is coming back.

    Rocket Ship Galileo, let's do it!

  • by cosm (1072588) <thecosm3&gmail,com> on Saturday October 31, 2009 @12:04PM (#29935049)
    But what about moon-riot control? Hopefully those lifter-bots are programmed with empathy towards the moon-hippies that chain themselves to their moon rocks. I wonder if there will be an Earth movement along the lines of, well, I guess, 'Grey-Peace' moon hippies against what ever strip-mine ore acquiring process that is eventually developed.

    If a Molotov cocktail is thrown in space, does it make a noise?

    Only Al Gore will know.
    • by arielCo (995647) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @12:19PM (#29935127)
      Dear Mr./Mrs. cosm,

      On behalf of the Society for the Advancement of Humour through Awkward Reframing, I'd like to convey our admiration for your tenacious and comprehensive example of this not so fine art. We'd be pleased to have you as an Honorary Member.

      • by cosm (1072588)
        Dear Mr./Mrs. aeielCo, On behalf of the Society for My Foot In Your Ass, I cordially accept your invitation. When and where can I express my gratitude, kind liaison?
  • something missing (Score:5, Insightful)

    by arielCo (995647) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @12:12PM (#29935091)

    There's no mention of the additional challenge presented by the mechanical properties of lunar regolith [wikipedia.org]. Since there's no wind or liquid water, the grains of "sand" have been formed only by breaking up larger pebbles [wikipedia.org] and have not been eroded since, so they're rather jagged and very abrasive.

    In other words, imagine your garden-variety backhoe or skid loader digging through finely ground glass - you'll pray to @DEITIES for its gaskets and bearings.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Nature handles this by putting a protective skin over the internal organs. A similar approach avoids the issue. A four or more legged walker with digging arms with a flexible outer skin would work well. It doesn't have to be rubber just have give like mylar. Most of the approaches I've seen ignore the dust issue and go for traditional exposed mechanics. Even if breaches happened it'd still keep out the bulk of the dust.

      • by Gerafix (1028986)
        Perhaps putting an adhesive over the protective layer would allow the regolith to attach itself creating a natural barrier helping prevent further erosion.
      • by arielCo (995647)

        Good one. One small issue: all designs would have to forfeit anything that spins as its business-end, much like whales don't have propellers. Still, there are alternatives, and you may look at living sand-diggers for clues. You still need something hard for "claws" and a pretty resistant skin, perhaps with scales where it's closer to the action.

        Bigger issue: the reactions of politicians / taxpayers when you show them your design for a robotic mole / lizard.

        • Not necessarily. Imagine two nesting cylinders. Line the inner surface of the outer cylinder with bristles. Cut a screw pattern on the outside of the inner cylinder. As the inner cylinder turns within the outer, any particles that make it in will be carried back out by the screw. There may also be electrostatic means of keeping the regolith out.
          • by arielCo (995647)

            What I meant was that anything enclosed by a skin cannot have rotating parts, by the same reasons living critters don't have any.

            As for the cylinders with bristles I figure those would be protective devices at the "out" sides of a traditional bearing which will handle the load (the bristles would be mashed otherwise). Kind of a self-cleaning gasket. Good one - from my limited perspective :)

            • What I meant was that anything enclosed by a skin cannot have rotating parts...

              Ah... Yes, of course.

              Although... If you had a flexible skin, you could have a part that rotates, a number of times one way, then reverses and rotates the opposite way. You just couldn't have a continuous rotating part.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by khallow (566160)
      I think this is overrated. As the other replier noted, you can protect the delicate parts of your machine. You can also maintain it (eg, clean and oil on a frequent basis the relevant parts). It's merely another engineering problem and I see no reason that the issue has to be addressed in this stage of technology development.
      • by arielCo (995647)

        I think this is overrated.

        Aw, there goes my Nobel. ;) Okay, I was actually shooting for a "3, Interesting" at most.

        As the other replier noted, you can protect the delicate parts of your machine.

        Yup - gaskets, flexible boots and such. But they have limited effectiveness since there's some sliding action exposed to the nasty elements.

        You can also maintain it (eg, clean and oil on a frequent basis the relevant parts).

        Are they sending a maintenance bot along with it? I expect this to be deployed initially as a prospector robot - likely the Lunokhod [wikipedia.org] chaps gave it a lot of thought.

        It's merely another engineering problem and I see no reason that the issue has to be addressed in this stage of technology development.

        True dat - self-maintenance probably wasn't a part of this challenge. But sure as hell it will have to be addressed bef

        • by khallow (566160)

          But sure as hell it will have to be addressed before we send the first titanium-digger on its own out there.

          I agree. My point though is that these incremental contests can't cover everything at once, otherwise they wouldn't be incremental. And you sure couldn't offer just $500k to demonstrate a digger on the Moon capable of say, six months of activity.

        • by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @01:53PM (#29935715) Homepage

          > Yup - gaskets, flexible boots and such. But they have limited effectiveness > since there's some sliding action exposed to the nasty elements.

          There doesn't have to be except at the wheels.

          Gas jets could be used to blow seals clear. Shouldn't take much gas. Or maybe positive pressure on the inside of each seal and a very slightly leaky seal so that there is a constant outward flow of gas or lubricant when the bearing is in motion to carry contaminants away.

          A search for "self cleaning seals" gets lots of hits.

          • by arielCo (995647)
            Yup, I thought of that too but I didn't post it to keep it short ;) I wonder about a long-term source of gas out there, but it can be finite too. Take a look at this thought [slashdot.org] (too bad posts by ACs rarely get modded up).
  • The next step... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Baron_Yam (643147) on Saturday October 31, 2009 @12:13PM (#29935093)

    Regardless of the speed and mass abilities of the excavators, I'd be interested in seeing a system that can excavate, process, and create something from simulated regolith in a high-static, near-vacuum environment.

    Specifically, I recall seeing articles about how it might be easy to create low-efficiency solar cells and a form of concrete from regolith.

    Assuming that works, I'd like to see a 'bot that can dig up some regolith, make a concrete igloo big enough to be useful, and cover it and the surroundings with solar cells. I suppose we're decades away from that...

  • The winning excavator from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts lifted 500 kilograms [answers.com] within the allotted time.

    [The article lists all weights in kilograms]
  • Earth pounds or lunar pounds? Seriously, when are NASA going to stop dicking around with English units and switch to Metric - like the English use.
    • 1103 lbs = 4 906 newtons As much as i like kilograms, newtons just don't speak to me like pounds or kilograms do.
  • by lennier (44736)

    Now we just need a Sam Bell. And a GERTY

  • "regolith is especially difficult to dig because its dust particles want to stick together"

    This is not why it's difficult to dig. Regolith is the exact same dust and sand that you see here on earth...before it was broken down by mechanical weathering. You start with rock, big rocks. Over time these break down into smaller and smaller rocks and then finally you get sand like you'd find on a beach. On the moon you have amazingly sharp, tiny rocks. This is because there's no process to weather them down i

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