Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Nasa's lunabotics mining competition: American space agency in search of talent for mining technology on the moon

By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad:  As many as seven Indian teams are participating in the final round of competition for the prestigious NASA mission aimed at mining precious elements on the moon and bringing them back to the earth.
Of the 12 international teams selected by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, seven are from India, including one from Visakhapatnam. The Lunabotics mining competition will be held in the USA
from May 23. The team from Visakhapatnam comprising students of GITAM University has prepared a robot that will crawl on the hostile terrain of the moon, picking up regolith (moon dust) and depositing it in a container for shipment back to the earth.
But before selecting the robots for actual assignment on the moon, NASA will test their efficiency and durability in an artificial atmosphere resembling the lunar terrain. The task given to each of the teams is that their robots should collect and deposit a minimum of 10 kgs lunar simulant within 15 minutes
"The regolith of the moon is said to contain previous elements including uranium and thorium of high nuclear grade. About 10 grams of uranium and thorium mined from the moon is equivalent to about a kg of the nuclear material found on the earth. NASA is looking at new technology that works with high precision and great durability," said Raj Kumar, a third-year student of mechanical engineering, GITAM university. Raj Kumar is one of the five-member student team of the university which designed the robot, called lunabot.
NASA will directly benefit from the competition by encouraging the development of innovative lunar excavation concepts from universities which may result in clever ideas and solutions which could be applied to an actual lunar excavation device or payload. The challenge is for students to design and build a remote controlled or autonomous excavator.
"The challenge is quite complex. It is not an easy task. The lunar simulant is highly abrasive. There are also limitations to the weight and size of the lunabot. Also, it is very difficult to control the lunabot from a remote control centre," pointed out another student Sai Suraj.
Utilising the students' talent, particularly from India, which is fast emerging as a space giant, NASA plans to explore the mineral wealth of the moon, which is rich in oxygen, silicon, iron, calcium, aluminium, magnesium,
titanium,  chromium, manganese, sodium, potassium, nitrogen, sulphur, carbon, hydrogen, helium 3, uranium and thorium.
The students said they had to cross many technical hurdles to design their robot as the lunar regolith has unique physical properties. The gravity is one- sixth of the earth's. The environment in the moon is a complete vacuum. Though NASA will immensely benefit from the students' technology and innovative ideas, it will offer just 5000 US dollars as the first prize. 

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