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Original source: Spaceflight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Students from dozens of universities across the United States gathered at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for NASA’s 2017 Robotic Mining Competition (NRMC). Students showcased and competed with their robotic concepts, which could potentially be used by NASA on actual future off-Earth mining.

The competition challenges university teams to build a mining robot that can traverse simulated Martian chaotic terrain, excavate regolith, and deposit it into a collector bin within 10 minutes.

Designed to engage students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, NASA said that it will directly benefit from the competition by encouraging students’ development of innovative and clever concepts for future In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). ISRU is the idea that spacecraft can utilize resources at a particular off-Earth landing site to create fuel and consumables rather than hauling everything out of Earth’s gravity well. This saves fuel and weight.

While there are a number of awards, the grand prize – The Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence – is given to the team that scores the most points during the competition. The winner will be given a school trophy and a $5,000 team scholarship.

“There are a number of tests for the teams to win first place by putting regolith into a bin,” said KSC Director and former Space Shuttle Commander Bob Cabana. “There is a challenge to get deeper. There is some gravel underneath that is simulating water ice. They are also being judged on a program management point of view on their presentation to the engineers also. It’s a great event, builds great team spirit camaraderie among the team, and the students learn a tremendous amount.”

The NRMC Project Manager Richard Johanboeke said that the regolith used in the robotic mining competition is specifically designed to imitate the crystalline nature of the Moon’s soil. He also said that 12 inches (30 centimeters) of puffy material represent the soil on the surface of the Moon and that 12 inches (30 centimeters) of icy regolith simulant – rocks and pebbles – are used to simulate the ice.

“The soil being used today is modified volcanic soil, which is called simulant, which mimics Moon soil because we don’t have any Martian soil samples,” Johanboeke said. “We’ve never had a return mission [from Mars], so we don’t know exactly what makes up [that] simulate.”

Johanboeke said that the criterion of complete autonomy was added around four years ago. An example from this year’s competition was the University of Alabama. They concluded their scheduled 10-minute segment completely autonomously.

Not one member on the team touched the controls after they pressed the start button for the entire 10 minutes the team had to complete their assigned time. At the end of the first run, the University of Alabama team had collected 358.5 pounds (162.6 kilograms) of regolith.

“These students are magnificent,” Johanboeke said. “They do fundraisers. They go beg, borrow, and steal. The whole idea is to make a commercial of the shelf product. We give them a parts list. [They have to go] to Home Depot to buy all the stuff to build a robot.”

This is the eighth consecutive year since its official kickoff in 2010 that NASA has conducted the robotic mining contest under various names. Around 50 universities from all over the United States were invited to participate. The winner for the 2016 NRMC was the University of Alabama.

The final competitions will take place on May 26, 2017. The 2017 winners will be announced and their awards given out at a dinner ceremony.

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