Students dig deep in bid to scoop the moon

Last updated 11:08 29/01/2013
Daniel Linton and Felix Kong

NEW FRONTIERS: Daniel Linton and Felix Kong show their lunabot design.

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When the other boys at school zoomed their cars, trucks and trains around the playground, Felix Kong preferred his toy spacecraft.

''I liked anything that was fast and could fly,'' he said.

Now a university student studying a bachelor of engineering in mechatronics and space at the University of Sydney, Mr Kong is trying to build his own spacecraft.

As a member of the Sydney Lunabotics, he and 15 other maths, science and engineering students have designed a machine that can mine material on the moon as part of a NASA competition for university students.

The team is the first Australian group to enter the quest, which requires participants to build an excavator, or lunabot, that can dig and deposit at least 10 kilograms of fake lunar soil within 10 minutes. Teams then test their machines on a mock moonscape at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida in May.

But the task is harder than it sounds - excavators have size and weight limitations and must negotiate a series of obstacles inside the simulated lunar arena. They also have to be controlled remotely or operate by themselves. Teams are awarded points in several categories including the on-site mining, outreach program and team spirit.

The Sydney team have designed their lunabot, which will be battery-powered, and have started ordering parts.

While the annual NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition, in its fourth year, aims to promote interest in space, maths and science among students, the space agency also benefits from the challenge.

Funding cuts mean NASA has less resources to cover all facets of space research. By creating a competition among university students, the agency has dibs on any of their innovative designs and concepts to use in future missions to mine planets or asteroids.

On Tuesday, a US company announced its plans to launch a fleet of spacecraft to search for near-Earth asteroids to mine for minerals.

Deep Space Industries intends to send specialised craft to probe asteroids rich in platinum-group materials and other metals in the next few years.

The Sydney Lunabotics machine will not need to venture as far as craft being sent to asteroids but the team's leader, Daniel Linton, hopes their machine will be autonomous.

''No one has achieved full autonomy yet,'' said Mr Linton, who studies aeronautical space engineering.

Mr Kong said the team's lunabot was inspired by industrial mining equipment, as well as designs from previous year's contestants.

While the competition's $5000 prize would be a welcome reward, it was the invitation to a rocket launch that excited the team most.

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- Sydney Morning Herald


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