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NASA taps Alabama A&M to host Break the Ice Lunar Challenge

HUNTSVILLE — NASA has selected Alabama A&M University’s Agribition Center to host the final level of the agency’s Break the Ice Lunar Challenge, using indoor and outdoor space to ground test the finalists’ solutions.

The challenge opened in 2020 to find novel solutions for excavating icy lunar regolith and delivering acquired resources in extreme environmental conditions. In alignment with NASA’s Moon to Mars objectives, the challenge aims to develop technologies that could support a sustained human presence on the Moon.

Throughout the challenge, competitors have designed, built, and independently tested robots that could theoretically withstand the harsh environments inside permanently shadowed regions of the lunar South Pole. The six finalists from Phase 2: Level 2 of the challenge were announced last December.

“We were looking for a unique set of criteria to house the Break the Ice Lunar competition, so we partnered with Jacobs Space Exploration Group in finding a facility,” said Denise Morris, NASA Centennial Challenges program manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. “Alabama A&M is a good fit for this challenge because of the on-site capabilities they have and being close to NASA facilities makes logistics much easier.”

Located a few miles east of the Alabama A&M University (AAMU) campus, the Agribition (agriculture + exhibition) Center is managed by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System with support from AAMU and its College of Agricultural, Life, and Natural Sciences. Its indoor arena features a large dirt space, typically equipped to support rodeos and other agricultural expos. Outside, the center sits on roughly 40 acres of land, offering plenty of green space to build the competition’s complex infrastructure.

The final Phase 2: Level 3 testing will occur June 10-12. There are two components that each team will focus on mastering: excavation and transportation. Six identically sized concrete slabs will be set up inside the arena for the finalists’ robots to dig.

The slabs, measuring 300 cubic feet, will have qualities similar to a permanently shadowed crater located at the Moon’s South Pole. A gravity-offloading crane and pulley system will lift the excavators while working, simulating the one-sixth gravity experienced on the Moon.

Each team will have one hour to dig as much material as possible or until they reach the payload capacity of their excavation robot. Up to three top-performing teams will earn an opportunity to test their solution inside one of the thermal vacuum chambers located at Marshall, which can simulate the temperature and vacuum conditions at the lunar South Pole.

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