Astrobotic creates robot to win NASA Moon excavation competition

PITTSBURGH, PA – July 6, 2009 – Astrobotic Technology Inc. announced today that it has begun testing a robot designed to win a NASA competition for excavating simulated Moon dirt.

The NASA Regolith Excavation Challenge, set for Oct. 17-18 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, will award $500,000 for the robot that can dig and dump the most simulated lunar dirt during a 30-minute workout. (“Regolith” is the technical term for the soil covering a planet, moon or asteroid.)

The Astrobotic robot, developed in collaboration with the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, is about a yard on each side and two feet tall, with a laser scanner at its crown to measure distances inside the 13 ft by 13 ft competition area. The laser scanner is sponsored by SICK, Inc., of Minneapolis, a global leader in industrial sensors and safety systems. A wide scraper skims the sand-like simulated lunar dirt into its hopper. Operators drive it via computer interfaces that include a four-second time delay, similar to the lag in communicating with actual lunar robots from Earth.

In the challenge, each robot must excavate a minimum of 330 pounds of simulated Moon dirt under lunar-like conditions of limited power and bandwidth. Last year, no robots met the minimum required; Astrobotic did not enter that contest.

The Astrobotic Moon digger will be refined over the coming months, including field trials in the “Regolith Simulant Testbed” which is being provided to competing teams by the California Space Authority a co-host of the challenge.

“Our goal is to test continuously to uncover errors and build the most competitive robot possible,” said Alex Gutierrez, leader of the Moon digger team.

Led by Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, famed Carnegie Mellon roboticist, Astrobotic’s main focus is developing a robot to win the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize in May 2011. This lunar robot will be a rolling TV studio, sending back high-definition video as it revisits the Apollo 11 site for the first time since Aldrin and Armstrong departed 40 years ago.

The more challenging task of lunar excavation will be addressed in later robotic expeditions planned by Astrobotic. The company plans a series of robotic missions that would gather information and make other preparations necessary for eventual human expeditions. Astrobotic robots, for instance, might be used to construct durable landing pads. Astrobotic and Carnegie Mellon completed a study of this work for NASA that showed robots the size of riding mowers could create a safe landing zone if given an 18-month head start


Later Moon diggers will be used for piling up regolith around crew living quarters to give the inhabitants extra protection from radiation, and to begin mining the Moon for energy and mineral resources.

For videos, and more information about this team, please go to