Lunar Knights Compete in NASA Robotic Competition

The mining robot built by the Lunar Knights Mining Club

By Rachel Williams

University of Central Florida students who make up the Lunar Knights Mining Club will compete this month in NASA’s national Robotic Mining Competition that was developed to help in the exploration of Mars.

The eighth annual competition is May 22-26 at Kennedy Space Center. About 50 student teams from across the country have entered a robot that will be judged on its ability to traverse simulated Martian terrains, excavate simulated soil and collect the soil for examination – all from a remote mission control center. The competition is designed so NASA can be presented with outside ideas of how to mine on Mars, a goal of future space exploration.

“Our team is well prepared this year,” said Adrienne Dove, Lunar Knights faculty advisor and an assistant professor of physics. “The robot is more robust than previous years. It’s a complicated system the team has gotten to work. It has to work mechanically, but it also has to run automatically. There’s a lot of parts that have come together.”

The Lunar Knights team is a registered student organization and received funding from the Student Government Association. The team also raised $5,000 and was given donated parts and equipment from local companies to make its robot that features 3-D printed parts and a bucket-ladder system to collect Martian soil. Fourteen buckets are situated on a conveyer belt that digs into the soil during mining and deposits the soil into a bucket on the robot.

“We started from scratch, which makes it more challenging and exciting,” said Esther Amram, president of Lunar Knights who graduated May 4 with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering. “Plus, we’re an interdisciplinary team made up of so many majors. We have team members who study marketing, psychology, criminal justice and of course all the engineering disciplines. It’s been a great learning experience.”

Lunar Knights’ robot also features a dust-mitigation system: Polycarbonate surrounds the bucket-ladder system so that while it’s mining, soil is contained inside the buckets. This prevents soil or dust intrusion in other areas of the robot, Amram said. Martian soil damaging a robot’s systems is a challenge NASA faces with Mars exploration because the soil – called regolith – is about as fine as flour.

Mining robots are important to furthering the exploration of Mars because they can help uncover ice that’s beneath the red planet’s surface. The ice could supply water for human consumption, hygiene, growing plants and more.

This is the second time Lunar Knights will compete in the NASA competition. Phil Metzger, an associate in planetary science research at UCF’s Florida Space Institute, is a judge this year, and UCF’s Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science sponsored a trophy. The top teams will be awarded scholarship money and trophies.

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