By Shane Klestinski, Associate Editor

Exolith Lab will host the first round of the NASA Lunabotics Challenge from May 11 to May 14 to test lunar rover teams from across the country.


Orlando has enjoyed fortunate geography in its positioning since the beginning of the space program. The University of Central Florida (UCF), formerly known as Florida Technical University, was originally established in 1963 to be America’s “Space University” that would supply highly qualified talent to the nearby Space Coast. Today, approximately 34% of Kennedy Space Center employees are UCF graduates. NASA’s annual “Lunabotics” contest invites student teams of innovators, engineers, and scientists from across the U.S. to focus their efforts on a given challenge – this year, in Central Florida.


Exolith Lab is part of the Florida Space Institute, which is part of UCF. Exolith seeks to advance space exploration, science, and education by providing access to high-fidelity regolith simulant at its facility for research. The simulated soil is made by Space Resource Technologies, a private company that is a recent spin-off of Exolith. The lab’s regolith bin located near UCF is currently the largest indoor bin in the world, containing about 130 tons of simulated extraterrestrial soil.


Regolith is the layer of loose dirt that covers the bedrock of multiple heavenly bodies, such as Earth, the moon, and Mars, with variations in its composition that are specific to each planet. Regolith simulant uses minerals found on Earth to mechanically and mineralogically replicate the regolith found in other locations throughout the solar system.


This year’s challenge that 46 university teams (so far) have accepted, is to employ their rovers to build a berm that will simulate a hill on the moon’s surface in Exolith’s regolith bin. More specifically, a team must get its rover – either autonomously or through remote operation – to excavate the regolith simulant from one area in the bin and transport it to another, where the rover will construct a berm. During this operation, the rovers will need to negotiate craters, rocks, and other obstacles in the way. Judges will score the teams on the size of the berm their rovers make (among other factors) at Exolith, and the top 10 teams will continue to the second round of competition at Kennedy Space Center starting May 15.


The lunar rovers in the challenge are relatively small. They are not the dune buggy-sized vehicles that astronauts drove during the Apollo moon landing missions. Parks Easter, chief technical engineer at Exolith Lab, compared the general dimensions of the competing rovers to “TapeMeasure,” the robot locally famous on UCF campus that resembles a large dog.


“We’re expecting the rovers to build something that’s about one-and-a-half feet tall by two or three feet wide,” Easter said. “It will be a small-scale demonstration.”


Easter said the simulated regolith mimics much of the mineral composition and chemistry as lunar soil, and it possesses many of the same properties with approximately 95% similarity. These traits make it much finer than most Earth soil, as well as more angular, jagged, and generally harmful to rovers and other equipment. It also possesses a high level of “cohesion,” which means that not only can rovers get easily stuck in it, but rovers can also have difficulty picking up the simulant and dumping it out of a container because, according to Easter, “it doesn’t want to move very much.” These qualities make it valuable for realistic mechanical testing and validating lunar rover designs, as well as plant growth experiments and other studies that require a precise chemistry.


Putting on a “small-scale demonstration” under such circumstances can be significantly more difficult than one might assume. Parks noted that getting rovers to work at all can be a big hurdle, and teams aren’t always successful in doing so.


“[After moving the simulant and navigating obstacles,] building the berm is actually the rovers’ last task, which is also the ultimate goal of the competition, and it gets the most points,” Parks said. “We’re hoping the top 10 teams will be able to actually build berms and get them as big as they can in a given area.”


Human operators can’t always effectively remote control a rover’s every function due to time delays and other factors. Easter explained that especially competitive rovers will be able to operate autonomously without human guidance once placed in the bin, and that capability would earn additional points.


“Good wheel design and traction are probably the biggest factors in whether a rover works,” Easter said. “Rovers that have poor wheel design can get stuck in the soil and they don’t even move past their starting point, or they tip over. If rovers can at least move around in the bin without getting stuck, they usually do pretty well.”


Unexpected benefits derived from technology meant to advance space exploration have improved commercial products and safety in various industries for years. Such examples include optics research that has improved scratch-resistant lenses, and planes that land safely in bad weather due to safety grooving on runways – a concept originally developed for NASA aircraft, such as the space shuttle. Easter said that benefits from this challenge and similar contests could eventually result in increased efficiency and safety in mining practices, both on Earth and in outer space.


Easter estimated that 20 to 30 professionals will serve as the contest’s judges. These officials will come from Caterpillar (the contest’s main sponsor), the National Center for Simulation, multiple NASA locations, UCF, Honeybee Robotics, and other industry representatives.


Winning teams will receive first through fifth-place rankings. Awards will include cash prizes, such as a $5000 grand prize, as well as other cash awards ranging from $500 to $2000. Judges will also assign “superlative” recognitions based on various factors observed during the challenge.

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