NASA Lunabotics Robotic Mining Competition 10th Anniversary (2010–2019): Taxonomy and Technology Review

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics


Space mining for resources such as water ice and regolith, which contain many elements in the form of metals, minerals, volatiles, and other compounds, is a necessary step for in-situ space resource utilization (ISRU). One of the primary goals is to extract propellants from the regolith and water ice, such as oxygen and hydrogen which could then be used for in-space transportation. In addition, the space mining system can be used for various construction tasks that can benefit human and robotic exploration as well as scientific investigations based on excavated exposed topography, such as the side walls of trenches. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) “Lunabotics” robotic mining competition (RMC) is a university-level competition designed to engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). NASA has directly benefited from the competition by encouraging the development of innovative lunar excavation concepts from universities which has resulted 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, called a “lunabot”, which can collect and deposit a minimum of 10 kg of lunar simulant within 15 min. In recent years, the goal has been changed to excavate a minimum of 1 kg of simulated icy regolith which is found under an overburden of regolith simulant. The complexities of the challenge include the abrasive characteristics of the lunar regolith simulant, the weight and size limitations of the lunabot, and the ability to control the lunabot from a remote-control center or operate it autonomously. This paper will present the results of the ten Lunabotics Robotic Mining Competitions held between May 2010 and May 2019. Each year over 50 university teams have attended, resulting in over 500 lunabot designs and subsequent prototypes. Over 6,000 university students have been part of the on-site competition at KSC. Even more students and the public were engaged via internet broadcasting and social networking media. The various designs have been cataloged and categorized here to provide information to future Lunabotics RMC mining robot designers and competitors. Categories will focus on both the mechanical design as well as the autonomy architecture/design. It is also expected to be of value for actual future space missions, as knowledge is gained from testing many innovative prototypes in simulated lunar regolith. A taxonomy of robotic excavator designs has been presented. In addition, the paper will discuss changes in learning paradigms occurring in the current generation of students, and how this competition leverages those changes to challenge students to develop skills in graduate level concepts and apply them. Examples of how this translates to hiring opportunities for commercial sponsors have also been discussed.

Publication Title

Earth and Space 2021